This classic Dolly Parton musical features one of the most homoerotic scenes ever committed to film

This classic Dolly Parton musical features one of the most homoerotic scenes ever committed to film

You are currently viewing This classic Dolly Parton musical features one of the most homoerotic scenes ever committed to film
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Image Credit: ‘The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas,’ Universal Pictures Home Entertainment Group

Welcome back to our queer film retrospective, “A Gay Old Time.” In this week’s column, we revisit the 1982 musical The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, which really is a gay old time!

This week we just might be doing a deep dive into what is simultaneously the straightest and the queerest movie thus far.

On the surface, 1982’s The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas is an often-silly and well-intentioned musical starring America’s most beloved big-breasted songstress, about a brothel trying to stay afloat after conservative backlash tries to bring it down.

However, if one scratches that surfaces a bit harder, they’ll find that the movie is actually a pretty scathing satire about the ways sexual freedom can (and has) been needlessly turned into a crime by puritanical figures—an idea that highly resonated with the queer community of when the movie was made, and also still unfortunately today.

The Set-Up

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is based on a 1978 stage musical of the same name, with a book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, and music and lyrics by Carol Hall. Its titular “whorehouse” is the Chicken Ranch, a brothel on the outskirts of the fictional town of Gilbert, Texas.

The Chicken Ranch is almost a historical institution in town, having been in operation since the late 1800s, and servicing hundreds of men through the years. Although technically illegal, the townsfolk have an implied understanding with the Ranch, and believe it almost to exist as a service to the community.

It’s managed by Miss Mona (Dolly Parton), a former Chicken Ranch girl that inherited the ranch from its previous owner. She takes very good care of her girls, giving them a strict routine and rules, and is in a love affair with the town’s sheriff Ed (Burt Reynolds), who makes sure that everything is handled “by the books.” It’s a utopian arrangement, where the men of the town get their needs taken care of safely by the girls, and there is no judgment or punishment for their work.

That is, until Melvin P. Thorpe (Dom Deluise), a religious TV personality from New Jersey, arrives in town to do an exposé of the Chicken Ranch, and quickly changes the public perception of the place. When a Texas senator is caught on tape with a girl, the situation escalates to the state level, and the Chicken Ranch is forced to close as the entire town puts it to shame.

A Sexy Song Of The South

Image Credit: ‘The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas,’ Universal Pictures Home Entertainment Group

The movie is a pretty straightforward musical adaptation with catchy tunes, pretty stellar choreography, and charming lead performances. You could even call it “above average” compared to the lack of theatricality in today’s musical films, while not necessarily remembered as a cinematic gold standard.

But what is pretty remarkable about the film is the view it has on sex and sex work, and how it subverts the archetypes of the conservative Southwest. Here, Texas is an oasis for sexual freedom, where the religious outsider is the one that disrupts the status quo, and where the community has learned to coexist peacefully with people that live outside traditional norms. What a concept, huh?

But even with that theme, the story still has a generally straight lens. It’s about a female brothel where only male clients go. It’s about a Texas town where the winners of the Thanksgiving football game are given a night with the Chicken Ranch girls. Enter Colin Higgins.

Queer Eye For The Straight Guys

Colin Higgins and his good friend Shirley MacLaine | Image Credit: Getty Images

Colin Higgins directed and co-wrote the film, and it’s his vision and creative choices that most definitely give it a uniquely queer layer. Higgins was an openly gay man, behind some of cinema’s most iconic films—he wrote the screenplay for Harold And Maude and directed 9 To 5 with Parton just a few years before Best Little Whorehouse. After this film’s release, he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985 and died a few years after. The Colin Higgins Foundation was established after his diagnosis to help gay and trans youth.

It’s impossible to watch this film and not see the queer eye that Higgins had for it, and what might have attracted him about the story. The movie was made at a time where the public perception around the gay community—in particular their sex lives—was changing quite drastically with AIDS on the rise. He most definitely saw his own people in the Chicken Ranch girls, being outcast and rejected after minding their business for decades, now getting demoralized and slandered by religious media.

The Dolly Effect

Image Credit: ‘The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas,’ Universal Pictures Home Entertainment Group

Higgins also gave Dolly Parton the lead role in an ingenious bit of casting. Parton is perhaps the one woman that is at the same time an icon for the gay community and a beloved singer for the conservative side.

She’s playing simultaneously to the audience the movie has empathy for and those it’s satirizing. And Dolly naturally destroys it as the Mother Hen that has to bear the weight of the town’s rage, and has her heart broken by the sheriff that doesn’t stand behind her.

The Gayest Musical Number Ever

And then there’s the Aggie Song—the gayest part of not just this movie, but probably most movies, ever. In the town of Gilbert, it’s a tradition for the winning team in the Thanksgiving football game to get a night with Chicken Ranch girls. So, when the Texas A&M Aggies claim victory, they show their excitement for their prize in the locker room with a song. And lots of choreography. And very little clothes. And a lot of homoerotic staring and framing.

Higgins once again subverts the archetype of the macho football team and unearths the queerness that lies not so discreetly underneath.

The Best-Kept Secret In Town

Image Credit: ‘The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas,’ Universal Pictures Home Entertainment Group

At first glance, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas is a fun movie that seems to be out of place and time; an oddity from when musicals were allowed to be bigger and bolder.

But when one looks a bit closer, there’s so much queer sentiment lying beneath, waiting to be discovered. Like a remote house in the countryside, watching the film today feels like you just got invited to the best-kept secret in town. And there’s nothin’ dirty goin’ on here!

The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas is available for digital rental via Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube TV.


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