Raquel Welch is dead at the age of 82. Her manager Steve Sauer broke the news to People.
Widely known as a “sex symbol” in the 1960s, when her beauty and iconic fur bikini was practically the sole selling point of the hit film “One Million Years B.C.,” Welch became something much more in her later years.
Born in Chicago and raised in San Diego, Welch was the daughter of an immigrant from Bolivia. Her journey through Hollywood in the ’60s and beyond represents the fraught evolution of representation on the big screen. Married at 18, the girl originally named Jo Raquel Tejada kept her husband’s Anglo name even after her separation from him in her bid to make it big in Hollywood — and avoid the typecasting of Latina actresses typical of the time.
Having won beauty pageants since the age of 14, Welch studied theater at San Diego State College and worked as a cocktail waitress, a TV weather forecaster, and a model for Neiman Marcus as her marriage fizzled. Those jobs speak to what was noticed by all: her stunning beauty, which ultimately allowed her entry to Hollywood while limiting the kind of roles that were available to her.
Her manager Patrick Curtis, a former child actor who’d appeared in “Gone with the Wind” (and died in November 2022), urged her to keep her husband’s name in an attempt to break into Hollywood. Even an Oscar-winning actress like Rita Moreno was sorely limited by the racist typecasting of the industry at the time, and so whitewashing Welch’s background seemed like the best approach for her to achieve success.
After small roles on “Bewitched,” “The Virginian,” and in the Elvis Presley movie “Roustabout,” she landed a seven-year contract at 20th Century Fox, which cast her as one of the leads in the 1966 sci-fi film “Fantastic Voyage.” In that film she starred opposite Stephen Boyd, Edmond O’Brien, Donald Pleasence, and Arthur Kennedy as scientists miniaturized and sent via a microscopic ship into a human body, to navigate its arteries like some kind of submarine. The film was a hit and made Welch’s name, but Fox immediately lent her out to the U.K.’s Hammer Films, the legendary genre studio known to push the boundaries of acceptable taste.
The result was “One Million Years B.C.,” a caveman epic, in which she wore nothing but a two-piece deerskin bikini for the entirety of the film — an article of clothing since described as “the definitive look of the 1960s.” The film, cheaply made and a kind of mainstream exploitation film built so singularly around her sex appeal, was a monumental success. And it’s arguable that she was never able to live it down.
Not that she didn’t try to subvert her image. The roles she followed up “One Million Years B.C.” with were ambitious and unexpected: an Italian film with Marcello Mastroianni in “Shoot Loud, Louder… I Don’t Understand” and an unusual lineup of Westerns (from the traditional “Bandolero!” to the Jim Brown/Burt Reynolds-starring counterculture Western “100 Rifles” to a movie where she plays the gunslinger title character herself, “Hannie Caulder”). Some movies along the way, such as the spy comedy “Fathom” and the Frank Sinatra noir “Lady in Cement” featured her on the posters as bikini-clad, showing how very defined she was by her sex appeal. That’s the case even for her later film “Fuzz,” in which she played a police detective, but the film was still marketed with her in a two-piece bathing suit.
The infamous “Myra Breckenridge,” adapted from the Gore Vidal novel by Michael Sarne, may be her most infamous attempt at subverting her image: wearing a strap-on, she rapes the character played by actor Roger Herron. Though derided at the time, it’s the kind of film that’s now totally unthinkable: a work of dangerous counterculture art that happens to be known by literally everyone, like a Harmony Korine film if people had the awareness of it like a blockbuster. More mainstream roles followed in higher-toned spectacles like the Stephen Sondheim/Anthony Perkins-written whodunnit “The Last of Sheila” (a key influence on Rian Johnson’s “Glass Onion” — think of Welch’s role as akin to Madelyn Cline’s Whiskey), and Richard Lester’s “The Three Musketeers” (for which she won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy”) and its sequel, “The Four Musketeers.”
She capitalized on her fame in the mid-’70s with a long-running nightclub musical act/one-woman show in Las Vegas. Then in 1981, Welch parlayed those musical skills when she replaced Lauren Bacall in Broadway’s “Woman of the Year,” a musical adaptation of the George Stevens movie. In 1997, she followed Julie Andrews and Liza Minnelli in Broadway’s “Victor/Victoria.” A supporting role in the 2001 movie “Legally Blonde” seemingly heralded the beginning of her “legacy talent” phase, beloved in the present for people’s memories of her past work. But a fascinating transformation occurred as Welch entered her 60s: She was finally able to play the Latina characters she’d been advised against portraying in the early part of her career.
In 2001’s “Tortilla,” Maria Ripoli’s recasting of “Eat Drink Man Woman” as a dramatic comedy about a Mexican American family, she played Hortensia, the mother of one of the main characters. At the same time, she played Aunt Dora in Gregory Nava’s groundbreaking PBS series “American Family,” the first U.S. drama series to star a predominantly Latinx cast. At long last she was able to represent her heritage, even winning an Imagen Award for her efforts in positively promoting Hispanic and Latino representation.
When Film at Lincoln Center mounted a retrospective of her films in 2012, her work was recognized for its canonical significance: trailblazing, subversive, emblematic of the industry’s ongoing institutional challenges, and worth revisiting for generations to come.
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