Looking back at the late, great, iconic sex goddess of 1960s cinema.
If you weren’t of a certain age during the 1960s and 1970s, then you might never be able to quite understand the cultural importance of Raquel Welch. It would be no exaggeration to say that she was the Marilyn Monroe of her era, a woman whose very name implied sexual desire and who seemed to exist outside of any films that she made as a brand unto herself, long before celebrities branded themselves. More than as an actor, Raquel Welch was famous as an image, an idea and yes, the punchline to many a sexist joke – where would the Two Ronnies have been without her name to imply the impotent lust of middle-aged men? As a small child, before I even knew what such things really meant and long before the first stirrings of the loins, I knew that Raquel Welch was the sexiest woman in the world, possibly of all time.
I’m not sure when I first saw One Million Years B.C. – no doubt on one of its then-regular TV broadcasts – or when I connected the mythical figure of Raquel Welch to the woman in the film, but when that connection was made, everything made sense. The fur bikini, the body, the big hair and most of all the face that showed defiance and desire, strength and beauty beyond imagination – everything about Raquel lived up to the reputation, maybe even went beyond it because here she was, fighting dinosaurs in a Hammer film and what could be better than that? Raquel Welch was one of those women who seemed almost too stunning to be a mere object of desire – her raw sexuality and beauty seemed too much, like a work of art that was too unattainable to imagine. Our modern-day sex symbols are much more ordinary, as suits our socially connected world where you can pretend that the biggest stars are your friend because you are allowed to follow their every utterance. Raquel seemed removed from reality.
The films were, if we believe the critics, a decidedly mixed bag with more misses than hits. Well, what do film critics know? Look at her filmography – One Million Years B.C., Fantastic Voyage, Fathom, Hanny Caulder, Myra Breckinridge, Lady in Cement, Bedazzled, Kansas City Bomber, The Last of Sheila and even that brief appearance as – steady now – the Priestess of the Whip in The Magic Christian. That’s a body of work that anyone could be proud of. By the middle of the 1970s, she was famous for being herself – or at least an exaggerated, media-created version of herself, leading to a lot of TV that included the genuinely amazing Raquel! musical special, fitness videos and a Las Vegas stage act. In 1980 she sued MGM for throwing her off the movie version of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, falsely blaming her for production delays. The studio tried to suggest that Welch was bitter because roles for actresses over 40 were hard to come by, which is an interesting defence to say the least. She won $10.8 million but found herself unable to find movie work, which ironically proved her point about the movie industry.
In the end, Raquel perhaps didn’t have quite the same long-lasting iconic status of a Marilyn, if only because times had changed and she was harder to impersonate, satirise and mock – she took the idea of the sex symbol away from the platinum blondes who knew how to send themselves up and gave it a new, smouldering edge that no one could mess with. While she epitomises an era, she had less of a kitsch image than the 1950s blonde bombshells and seemed more in control of her sex appeal. Yet there is a glorious sense of kitsch running through her work, which may or may not have been intentional – I mean, look again at that filmography. You could make a pretty good camp film festival out of her work. Clearly, these were conscious choices so it’s safe to say that she knew very well what her image was and liked to satirise it just as much as Jayne Mansfield did hers – she just did it in a more subtle way that didn’t make men think that she was stupid and disposable.
In Bedazzled, Raquel plays Lust. Well, of course she does. In 1967, who else on the planet could have played that role? It’s a knowing, witty reference to her cultural position, a position that she held onto into the mid-1970s without anyone really challenging her. Like all the best sex symbols, she overshadows her own career – a filmography that is long overdue reexamination – and exists beyond cinema, beyond culture in general and has become shorthand for every cool, big-haired bikini-clad chick with attitude that the 1960s was awash with – the rest all feeling like pale imitations, no matter how cool they might be. People tend to think of Raquel in the same way as they do other iconic sex goddesses, as though their career was somehow unfulfilled no matter how many great films they made, because the films always end up playing second-fiddle to the image. No matter – we all know better, right? Raquel Welch had a great film career and lived according to her own rules. I mean, who can argue with the woman who starred in both One Million Years B.C. and Myra Breckinridge?
Raquel Welch died on February 15th 2023, aged 82.
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