Compare and Contrast: Rocky vs Dolly

RHPS who wore it betterWho wore it better?

Many, many years after its initial release, I finally caught up with The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas and was immediately struck with this thought:

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a far more wholesome film.

There’s a lot to recommend Best Little… as a movie entertainment. First off, few stars have had a better screen debut than Dolly Parton enjoyed in Best Little…[1] Her incredible vivaciousness and personality leap off the screen, but she also demonstrates a savvy actor’s knowledge of character and a wide and subtle range of emotions.

It’s certainly brightly lit, enthusiastically performed, full of surprising turns (Charles Durning as the governor was a delight), fast paced, and jolly good fun while at the same time touching seriously on the topics of cynicism and hypocrisy and the morality of prostitution in light of Judeo-Christian ethics.[2]

But in the final analysis it succumbs to a certain cynical hypocrisy of its own.

  1. Point: Parton’s Mona Stangley madam character is, for all her vivaciousness and feisty rhetoric, ultimately a passive acquiescent to what men want. She is there to serve them and has no goals of her own other than operating a high class establishment. She folds with minimum fuss when confronted by hypocrisy, and can be -- and is -- wounded to the quick when called a whore and reminded of her real status in society.
  2. Point: For all the obsessions with sex and tits and ass, for all the titillating talk and flirty dancing, in the end it’s a very sanitized and asexual experience. Bedroom activities consist of rolling about in bed in one’s undies, presented in such a wholesome manner that even the most conservative religious person would see nothing wrong with it. If Disneyland had a whorehouse, this would be it.
  3. Point: Despite this, the film openly states through a man-on-the-street interview that without a release for their sexual tensions, heterosexual men would turn to rape to satisfy their desires.
  4. Point: Though a nod is made towards changing mores, the basic message is that sex is something men are obsessed with and a chore for good, decent women, fit to be engaged in only by the outcasts of society. The women of the town approve of the whorehouse because it lets them take a rest from servicing their husbands, young men get to frolic without having to actually engage emotionally with their partner, and since part of the proceeds are cycled back into the community in the form of Little League baseball uniforms, well, what’s the harm?
  5. Point: Sex, with the exception of Parton and Burt Reynold’s relationship and a nod towards Jim Nabors’ deputy being a happily married man who doesn’t frequent the establishment, is divorced from emotion and genuine passion. It is openly commoditized and exploited by all parties, something men do for fun and women do for money.
  6. Point: Despite this, with one or two exceptions (and they are presented only briefly as comic relief), all on-screen participants are young and good looking (okay, Parton and Reynolds are middle aged and good looking). Everybody’s clean, everybody has a sunny disposition, and unlike Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour, there’s no threat of Harold Sakata walking in with a box containing something so horrific even hardened Parisian prostitutes run screaming in terror.RHPS 15244
  7. Point: With the exception of a single token African-American prostitute who dances with a single token African-American football player, sex is reserved for attractive young white women and attractive and / or financially secure white men.
  8. Point: Despite being an egomaniacal poser, a jerk, and an exploiter in his own accord, Dom DeLuise’ newscaster is not wrong when he points out the hypocrisy of passing laws to make certain activities and establishments illegal, then ignoring those laws because it’s beneficial to all parties to do so.[3]

Compared to that, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a breath of fresh air!

  1. RHPS is about characters who are independent moral actors motivated by their various passions.[4] They are all willing, enthusiastic self-guided participants, not passive workers-for-hire awaiting employment. They live in neither fear nor contempt of the mores of others; they do what they want to do and couldn’t care less what others think. “Don’t dream it, be it.”
  2. While there’s actually less skin shown on-screen than Best Little…, RHPS is a lot more realistic in terms of human sexual interactions. It’s messy, it’s extreme, it’s daring, it’s frightening, and it’s tons of fun.
  3. There are seductions galore in RHPS but no rapes. Some participants may be reluctant at the start, but they change their minds and willingly consent before actual sexual activity begins.
  4. Sex is depicted as something to be experienced and enjoyed equally by all people of all genders and orientations. And it remains the business only of those actively involved, not the community at large.
  5. There are no ulterior material motives in RHPS. While different characters have different agendas, they nonetheless relate sexually to one another as individuals, not as people engaged in business. RHPS’ sexual activity means something intrinsic to those involved, not an opportunity for financial exploitation.
  6. The Transylvanians are genuinely egalitarian, representing all ages, all ethnicities, all genders, all orientations, and all physical types. There is more genuine interest and interaction shown among the supporting dancers of RHPS than those in Best Little…
  7. While predominantly a white American / English cast, RHPS features a multi-ethnic troupe who, more importantly, interact across ethnic lines.
  8. Though not its focal point, RHPS does address the issue of moral hypocrisy on the part of authorities. But, as will be elaborated on below, it’s willing to turn its eye on itself and call out hypocrisy among its own central characters. It provides no pat moralistic answers.

That examination is the key to understanding The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It is not a story about two innocents, Brad and Janet, who are initiated into the realm of sexual passion (thought that, of course, occurs).

Rather, Brad and Janet are two vanillas through whom the audience can witness the real story.

You see, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is actually the same story as Heart Of Darkness / Apocalypse Now: A man on a mission to a remote backwater goes native and his superiors authorize an underling to terminate his command.

Unlike Dolly Parton’s Mona Stangley, Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank N. Furter is no passive character who exists to please others; he’s self-motivated, self-guided, and clearly in charge of the story.

He’s also frightening and dangerous; he flat out murders one character twice then (no spoilers) takes steps to make sure they won’t revive again for Round 3.

He doesn’t cater to glossy surface pleasures but digs down deep into what floats other characters’ boats. He makes people face and realize their own deepest motivations, for good or bad.

But he’s also recognized as being out of control, brushing off his duties as an advance scout to Earth.[5]

Like Mona Stangley, he ultimately has to answer to a higher authority; unlike Mona, he answers for the consequences of his own moral choices and behaviors, not as an innocent scapegoat for the status quo.

And in the end, that’s a far more honest, far more realistic, far more ethical and moral message.

One last thought in closing: Tim Curry was perfect in RHPS, but Marlon Brando as Dr. Frank N. Furter would have been EPIC.

RHPS Missouri_Breaks_2

I looked for an image of Brando in lingerie but this is the best I could do.




[1] Well, Tim Curry, too, in RHPS, only Parton continued her climb to superstardom while Curry settled in for a long and successful career as a character actor.

[2] No foolin’!

[3] It’s ironic that a movie supposedly celebrating heterosexual activities casts two gay actors, Nabors and DeLuise, as the only male characters resistant to the blandishments of the establishment.

[4] This use of the term “moral actor” means an individual who has the right and ability to make ethical decisions regarding their actions, not a squeaky clean performer.

[5] We know little about the mission or the culture of the Transylvanians (from the galaxy Transexual, not to be confused with the Transylvanians of Earth) but we do know whatever it was, Dr. Frank N. Furter has abandoned it in pursuit of self-gratification. It’s an open question whether he had these predilections before arriving here and embraced the freedom to do as he wished without oversight, or if he became corrupted by what he found on Earth. Likewise the question about Kurtz in both Heart Of Darkness and Apocalypse Now is whether he misunderstood his superiors’ orders or understood them all too well.


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