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Raquel Welch: The Goddess Factor

From Cocktail Hostess to international icon, the actress-entertainer considers life beyond her sex symbol image.
David Giammarco
From the Print Edition:
Raquel Welch, Jul/Aug 01

(continued from page 2)

Burt Reynolds echoes that when he describes the first time he laid eyes on Welch. It was in 1964, and she had just won the job of "Billboard Girl" on an ABC weekly variety show.

"I remember Raquel's effect on the American psyche when she walked across the stage on 'The Hollywood Palace' with a card in her hands," says Reynolds. "It was staggering. When she came on stage, I mean, you didn't look at anybody else."

Welch's voluptuous beauty was soon causing a sensation in Hollywood. Before long, she was invited to screen test at 20th Century Fox for the James Coburn film Our Man Flint. Then, word came that Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, producer of the James Bond series, wanted Welch as his next Bond Girl. When Fox studio head Richard Zanuck got wind of the 007 offer, he swiftly signed Welch to an exclusive contract.

Her first featured role turned out to be of microscopic proportions when Fox cast her in the 1966 sci-fi film classic Fantastic Voyage, where she played one of the doctors miniaturized and injected into the bloodstream of a dying scientist in order to save his life. By the time Fantastic Voyage became a box office hit, Welch was already in England on loan to British horror studio Hammer for what would become her film breakthrough: One Million Years B.C.

As a cave girl named Loana, Welch uttered only three words in the entire film. But it was a single production still (turned poster) of Welch, clad in little more than strategically placed strips of fur, that spoke volumes; it became one of the iconic images of its day. (The poster even plays a small but key role in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption.) The 5-foot-6 beauty was suddenly an international sex symbol.

"I do think that there are certain images, both in film and stills, that have that kind of magic impact on us," explains Hefner. "It freezes a particular moment -- a magic moment -- that becomes part of our pop culture history and has a tremendous impact on us. It runs the gamut from Betty Grable's pinup to Raquel Welch's Million Years B.C. poster."

Welch quickly learned, however, that being a sex symbol wasn't what she had expected. "They really didn't want any other input from me. I had all these ideas and ambitions percolating inside, but nobody wanted to hear them. I remember trying to talk with directors and they would say, 'Could you just not think and not have any ideas, please!' It kind of felt like doors were being closed to my soul."

But the actress is quick to qualify that by saying she was partly to blame. "I hate carrying on about how the image victimized me, because I don't really think it's true," she admits. "I think that I played along with that in order to get a break. I tried a lot of different ways, and that was the way the break came. I had tried a much more serious approach and was getting absolutely nowhere. And as soon as I said, 'OK, well then, I'll do the Hollywood thing -- I'll wear the tight dresses and go to the auditions all sparkling like I see everybody else doing it, because I clearly [had not been] playing that game.' And then it ended up working only too well. I trapped myself."

But Welch was bent on proving otherwise. In 1967, she and her children moved to Europe with Patrick Curtis, where she got film roles around the continent. She starred alongside Edward G. Robinson and Vittorio De Sica in The Biggest Bundle of Them All, Marcello Mastroianni in Shoot Loud, Louder...I Don't Understand and Monica Vitti and Claudia Cardinale in Le Fate. While in Paris, Welch and Curtis married -- which caused a media sensation as hordes of paparazzi tried to storm the city hall where the ceremony took place.

After stealing the show from the other six deadly sins as lust incarnate in the 1967 Dudley Moore/Peter Cook Faustian comedy Bedazzled, Welch returned to the United States, where Fox quickly paired her opposite some of Hollywood's leading men, including James Stewart and Dean Martin in the bloody Western Bandolero! and Frank Sinatra in his Tony Rome detective mystery Lady In Cement. In 1969, she teamed with football-star-turned-actor Jim Brown in the controversial Western 100 Rifles, which featured the first interracial love scene in a major motion picture. But then in 1970, Welch's risky decision to portray a transsexual out to conquer Hollywood in Myra Breckinridge proved to be a box office and critical disaster. Eager to try a new direction, Welch and her husband decided to produce her next film, Hannie Caulder, but the box office reaction was less than stellar.

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