Back to the Movies 1984: No. 50 Rhinestone

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Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1984 in order from 50 to 1.

I begin my journey, as I did with the last edition of Back to the Movies, at the bottom of the list first. As I learned with 1983, the movies that tend to fall near this end of the list fall into one of two categories: they are either A) big studio releases that were complete flops or B) movies that weren’t major commercial forces but still picked up enough interest to squeak their way into the top 50.

When it comes to the No. 50 film from 1984, the spectacularly awful Rhinestone, there’s not really much question as to which category we’re talking about. Rhinestone is a textbook flop – a movie born from a desire to satisfy Hollywood egos rather than audiences. A movie born from that breathtakingly lazy process of sticking two random, popular stars-of-the-moment together and hoping their combined drawing power is enough to create a hit.

Before we get into just how bad this movie manages to be despite featuring two of the most popular stars of the 1980s, let’s talk about how it came to exist in the first place. Rhinestone first made it to Hollywood in the form of a screenplay from a then-unknown TV writer and director named Phil Alden Robinson. The script was picked up and quickly turned into a vehicle for two of the hottest, most charismatic stars of the day: Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone.

That’s about the moment where this movie began to go off the rails. By 1984, Stallone had established himself as a massive force in Hollywood, not just in front of the camera but behind it as well. Between the first three Rocky films and First Blood, Stallone had starred in four major studio releases accounting for a combined $374 million and had directed another legitimate blockbuster in 1983’s Staying Alive, the horrendously stupid sequel to Saturday Night Fever. Stallone was now a proven success both as an actor and as a writer/director, so it’s no surprise that once he became attached to the project, the screenplay was handed over to him for a total rewrite.

Stallone’s rewrites made the film sillier and more heavily reliant on corny jokes. Phil Alden Robinson was reportedly so upset with Stallone’s reworking of the screenplay that he considered removing his name from it (though ultimately keeping his name on the script helped his career take off in Hollywood).

Meanwhile, Rhinestone increasingly became a real passion project for Stallone. He turned down roles in Romancing The Stone and Beverly Hills Cop (two movies we’ll see much later on the countdown) to pursue a project that he felt would establish him as a major force in a new and lucrative segment of the industry: comedy.

Stallone’s co-star for the role, Dolly Parton, was a legitimate superstar in 1985, the likes of which have rarely been seen before or since. In addition to her wildly successful country music career, Parton had starred in two of the biggest and most surprising hits of the 1980s already with 9 to 5 and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Rhinestone appeared to provide Parton with the perfect opportunity to capitalize on her success in both avenues; a lighthearted comedy film with one of Hollywood’s biggest names with an accompanying soundtrack album loaded with new material from Parton ready-made for country radio.

So there you have it: two of the biggest stars of the day together in the same movie! What could go wrong?

There’s honestly not a single scene in this movie that I enjoyed from start to finish, at least not in a non-ironic way, and it all starts at the very beginning. The movie quickly establishes its premise, which is My Fair Lady, which is Pygmalion. Basically, Parton and her sleazy boss (Ron Leibman) make a bet that she can turn any old fella off the street into a country singer.

The stakes in this version of the classic story however are, well, pretty horrible in the way that only a blissfully ignorant early ’80s film can be. If Parton can’t follow through on her wager, she promises to have sex with her boss, whom she hates and definitely does not want to have sex with. Maybe I’m being an overly-sensitive PC stick-in-the-mud but I’m kind of amazed this wasn’t brought up as a particularly offensive idea in any of the materials I’ve read about the movie written at the time. The post even used the setup as a major selling point, with the tagline “She’s bet everything, and we mean everything, that she can turn this New York cabbie into an overnight sensation.”

This pretty astonishingly gross premise does at least provide us with plenty of one-liners from Parton directed at her disgusting boss (“There are two kinda of people on this world, and you ain’t one of them”) though they are hit-and-miss at best.

The first “fella off the street” she sees is, of course, Stallone who plays a painfully loud and obnoxious New York cab driver. From his very first scene, it’s apparent that Stallone has absolutely no idea what he’s doing in this movie. He seems to be under the impression that the louder he is, the funnier he’ll be. The end result is a performance that is so completely devoid of any charm or charisma that we spend most of the movie hoping he’ll find something else to do for a few minutes so Parton can talk to someone else.

Unfortunately, Stallone doesn’t leave the screen much at all for the remainder of the movie, following Parton back to her Tennessee mountain hometown where she plans on teaching him what it means to be a real country boy. Hollywood has gotten a lot better at portraying the South accurately on film but Rhinestone provides perhaps a perfect example of how wrong Hollywood got the South 30 years ago. The film seems to be under the impression that all Southerners are basically Texans, spouting cowboy wisdom, talking about riding horses and saying “howdy” to each other.

While Richard Farnsworth does a nice job playing Parton’s father, most of the Southern characters are about what you would expect to see from a movie that gets everything wrong about the South. I will admit, I enjoy Tim Thomerson‘s performance as Barnett, an ex-boyfriend of Parton’s character who drunkenly spars with Stallone in a local bar. He’s a character who’s obviously meant to be the bad guy but unlike Stallone, Thomerson obviously knows how to play his character for laughs.

Anyway, after teaching Stallone the basics of being a country singer and leading him through a somewhat successful and enjoyable musical performance in Tennessee, Parton and Stallone head back to New York where, assembled in front of Stallone’s entire family, Parton proceeds to suddenly and without provocation rip Stallone’s character for being a terrible singer. It’s obviously true, but it doesn’t seem to fit her character or the direction of the plot at all. It feels almost like things were going too well for the characters so Stallone (or Robinson) decided they needed to create a new conflict out of thin air by making America’s sweetheart suddenly act like a complete asshole.

Somehow (I actually don’t even remember) they get this problem worked out and the film culminates with Stallone and Parton performing together on stage. We are told by the movie that Stallone is absolutely killing it. The crowd is going wild. This is what it actually looks like.

That’s supposed to be THE BEST performance Stallone gives in the movie. That’s the triumphant moment that earns his character a performing contract the club manager.

There’s a tone-deafness to the entire film that the scene above exemplifies perfectly. This is a film that was obviously made by a director who thinks Sylvester Stallone is 1) a really funny comedic actor and 2) at least a pretty good singer. That director oddly was Bob Clark, who actually seemed to have a pretty good feel for comedic performances when he directed Porky’s and A Christmas Story. In general, the movie feels like a project in which Stallone had free reign to do pretty much whatever he wanted. He certainly appears to be having a good time, even if no one else is.

The critics in 1984 felt pretty much the way I feel. Roger Ebert hated nearly everything about it, even its sex scene which he called “so tame that Miss Piggy goes further with Kermit.”

(Skip ahead to the 10 minute mark to see Siskel and Ebert discuss Rhinstone)

The silver lining for Rhinestone was undoubtedly its soundtrack album, which yielded two top-ten country hits in “God Won’t Get You” and “Tennessee Homesick Blues”. According to her auto-biography “My Life and Other Unfinished Business”, Parton said that she considers the soundtrack album for Rhinestone some of the best work of her career and her solo performances in the film are hugely enjoyable to watch, even as someone who is admittedly not a fan of country music.

I’ll be honest: I didn’t know this movie even existed before I sat down to take a look at my list of films for this latest edition of Back to the Movies. I think that’s fairly representative of the legacy this film left behind, along with whatever affect it may have had on its two stars. Stallone didn’t attempt to make another comedy until 1991 when he starred in John Landis’ highly-regarded Oscar while Parton continued on with her hugely successful career music career, returning to the screen again two years later in the chick flick classic Steel Magnolias.

Rhinestone appears to have faded into cultural obscurity over the years, which is usually what happens to movies that are bad but not bad enough to be considered campy. The film is best summed up by an actual line Stallone wrote and says in the movie: “It’s like, worse than liver.”

Next Up: George Burns pulls double-duty in Oh God, You Devil