Kansas City, Mo. — Dolly Parton sits at the head of a long, dark-wood table and presides over a news conference just like any personable, hard-working, successful business person.
And what a business person she is. She turns out recordings, television shows and films. She owns her own theme park, called Dollywood. She boosts her home state, Tennessee, with passion. She even is willing to endure a news conference tour of the United States to promote "Straight Talk,'' a Disney comedy that opens Friday at area theaters.
She proved she is smarter than most of the comedians who used to make jokes about her physical appearance. And she probably is smarter than most of the reporters sitting around the table who, as far as is known, do not have their own theme park.
"I'VE ALWAYS said I have the body of a woman and the brains of a man,'' Parton said last week. "I know a lot of women in country music who have had a harder time than I had.''
"Straight Talk,'' a project that has bounced around various studios for several years, finally produced a vehicle for Parton where she, for once, is the biggest star on the screen. Most of her films have either been ensemble efforts ("Nine to Five,'' "Steel Magnolias'') or co-starring jobs with leading men who suffered in comparison to Parton's energy ("The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,'' "Rhinestone'').
"I needed a movie,'' she said. "I think people are might be getting tired of my Christmas special.''
She plays Shirlee Kenyon, a woman who through an accidental appearance on the radio becomes an on-air counselor despite her total lack of certification.
"THE CHARACTER is a lot like me, only she's less ambitious,'' Parton said.
The film's director, Barnett Kellman, is better known for working off-Broadway than in Hollywood, and the unlikely supporting cast includes intense leading man James Woods, veteran character actors Griffin Dunne, Jerry Orbach and Jay Thomas, theater stars Philip Bosco and Spalding Gray (who performed in Lawrence on Feb. 22 and 23) and writer-director John Sayles. Parton also wrote and recorded the songs on the soundtrack, which she is promoting as well.
She said Jane Fonda and the producers of "Nine to Five'' lured her into movie-making back when she made "Nine to Five.''
"I always thought acting would be close to music because you act out the feelings in the songs,'' Parton said. "I got offered a lot of screenplays, but it was years before I took it. With `Nine to Five' Jane Fonda told the that the producers thought that with me they would get the South. It was great to act because it wasn't a difficult dramatic part.''
PARTON HAS been in show business most of her life, and she admitted that most aspects of performing, including news conferences, are now second nature. In answering questions she is self-deprecating nearly to a fault.
"I need to do roles that are pretty close to Dolly,'' she said. "I mean I know I'm not Meryl Streep or Sally Field. . . . I have no talent to direct, it's too much like work.''
Of course, Parton has a pile of projects lined up. She would like to film a gospel musical one that would not alienate non-Christians. She has a contract to write an autobiography, called "Life and Other Unfinished Business.'' She's getting ready to go on tour. And she is working on a possible project with Bette Midler.
"I've always worked well under pressure,'' she said. "If somebody wants a song on a deadline I can do it good and fast.''