Myra Breckinridge, one of Raquel Welch’a most controversial films (she played the eponymous character, a post-op transexual), was screened last month at New York’s Lincoln Center as part of a retrospective of Welch’s career. When it was first released in 1970, the movie bombed with extreme prejudice and was universally panned by critics, most famously by Time magazine, who quipped that it was “about as funny as a child molester.” Forty-plus years later, the movie’s still as uncomfortable and shocking, particularly the scene where Welch rapes a guy with a strap-on dildo. “I won’t kill you,” she (he) announces. “I’ll just educate you. You and the rest of America!” (And educate us she did.)
But hindsight has given some perspective to the much-maligned farce. “For all its flaws,” a writer for the New York Observer admitted in a recent story about the Lincoln Center screening, “the film accurately documents a culture-wide fixation on the body of Raquel Welch.” And that, more than the artistic merits of any one of her films, is really why Welch is such an enduring cultural icon long after her heyday. Even her most memorable films, like the prehistoric soft-core porn that is One Million Years B.C., aren’t especially good. (Have you seen it recently? We dare you. It’s cringe-worthy.) But whatever your age, you’ve probably seen (and more likely had dirty thoughts about) that poster of Welch in a fur bikini. It is to cinematic eroticism what the Iwo Jima flag raising is to war romanticism.
This past December, Welch came in at #2 in MH’s Hottest 100 Women of All Time list, beating some very stiff competition. Some might dispute her ranking, but those people are fools. Welch, unlike so many sex symbols before and after her, has never fostered an image of giggly innocence waiting to be corrupted, or a naughty Lolita up to no good. Even when she was barely old enough to drink, she always seemed like a woman, very much in control of her own sexuality. We called Welch to talk about the milestones of her remarkable career, which continues its five-decade winning streak this Sunday, March 11th, when the now 71 year-old legend guest-stars on the CBS drama CSI Miami (10pm ET/PT). She was charming and outgoing and surprisingly funny, especially when she described herself as “just another American actress with a nice rack.”
Eric Spitznagel: I heard you got injured on the set of CSI Miami. What happened exactly?
Raquel Welch: It wasn’t really that bad. The story was picked up by the National Enquirer, so of course it got blown out of proportion. Right before I was about to do the show, I broke my foot. It was just after Christmas and I was at home and I swear I hadn’t been drinking all that much. (Laughs.)
Somehow I don’t believe you.
It’s the truth! Anyway, I ended up falling and broke my foot. All I could think was, Oh my god, I’ve got this shoot coming up and it’s going to be weird.
Why would it be weird?
Well, what if I couldn’t stand up on my own? I didn’t want them to have to put my character in a wheelchair or hobble around with a crutch. But I healed very quickly and made it just under the wire. We’d been shooting, I don’t know, maybe two days, and we were on location outside of this big beautiful house in Pasadena. I got called to the set, and I had to walk across this area that was all gravel, and I’m wearing these very high-heeled sexy shoes. I’m kinda wobbling around and the guy who was escorting me to the set, who’s a big muscular guy, he says to me, “Let me carry you.”
Exactly, yes. And I said “Great, thank you.” Because I really didn’t need to fall down, especially with my broken foot just barely healed. So he picks me up and carries me, and we’re just past the gravel when he starts to lose his balance. We’re starting to fall, and I’m thinking, oh come on! This can’t be happening to me!
Did he fall on top of you?
He would have, but he twisted his body around as we were falling, making sure I wouldn’t hit the ground. He took the brunt of the fall away from me. After we landed, David (Caruso) comes out and walks me to the trailer. He’s just white faced. “Are you okay? Are you okay?” I’m like, “I’m fine, it was nothing.” Meanwhile, the poor guy who was carrying me, everybody in the crew is razzing him mercilessly. They’re like, “He dropped Raquel Welch! What a schnook! What a doofus!”
It sounds kinda fishy.
What does? Him falling? It wasn’t his fault! And he was so sweet, trying to protect me on the way down.
Yeah, he “tripped” and then maneuvered himself so that you accidentally landed on top of him? Come on, that’s the oldest trick in the book.
You think so? I don’t know.
There’s not a heterosexual man alive who wouldn’t pretend to fall if it meant you’d land on top of them.
Well sure, but not necessarily on cement. In front of all your buddies? I don’t think so.
You’re playing the baddie on CSI, the matriarch of a crime family.
She’s a really wicked woman. She’s a murderous nogoodnik. She has no redeeming qualities whatsoever about her. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve ever played a villainess. I just hope people don’t confuse the character with me, and think I’m some wretched, horrible bitch.
I think people understand that this is make-believe.
Probably. And besides, there are people out there who think I’m a wretched, horrible bitch anyway. (Laughs.)
I don’t think you’re right about this being your first villainess. What about when you played yourself on an episode of Seinfeld?
Oh yeah, I suppose so.
You were the evil, alternate universe Raquel Welch.
That was so much fun. But I thought of her more as a diva than a villain.
A diva who physically abused her underlings.
There was that. (Laughs.) It can be cathartic to play such a horrible ball breaker. But it’s also exhausting. I mean, I wouldn’t want to do it every day.
There was speculation that the Seinfeld character was loosely based on you, or at least your reputation for being a bit tempestuous.
I’m tempestuous? (Laughs.)
Well, you have Bolivian blood in you, right? It’s my understanding that you don’t want to cross somebody with Bolivian blood.
Well I’ll tell you something, Bolivian blood isn’t a whole lot different than anybody else’s blood. But yes, I do have Bolivian blood. My father was Bolivian, which makes me half-Bolivian. It’s where I got some of my exotic features and certainly my skin tone. And I guess my…. visceral reaction to everything is kind of tinged with the Latina chromosome. But I consider that a good thing.
No argument here.
Not everybody is comfortable with my ethnicity. When I first came along in the business, they didn’t really like the idea of my name being Raquel.
They being 20th Century Fox?
Yeah. I signed with them and almost immediately they wanted me to change my name. They came to me and said, “We have the solution. We figured it all out. You’re going to be Debbie Welch.” I think they were paranoid that Raquel sounded too ethnic. And I thought, maybe I should be more paranoid than I am. But I wasn’t raised thinking of myself or my background as particularly exotic. I felt very American and middle of the road. I knew that I had a little salsa in my blood, but on my mother’s side there was the whole English heritage.
What was the studio’s argument for changing your name? Did they come right out and say “It’s too ethnic?”
No, it was nothing that obvious. They said it was difficult to pronounce, nobody’s going to remember it. And they had a point. In school, nobody could pronounce my name. They just called me Rocky. But school kids are one thing, your career as an adult woman is another. I took it as a challenge. I was like, “Well, let’s see what happens.” You either embrace your identity or you let them force you into homogenizing yourself.
But they weren’t asking you to do something that wasn’t already commonplace in your industry. Frederick Austerlitz became Fred Astaire, Bernard Schwartz became Tony Curtis.
That was mostly an American insecurity. Americans were not sure how to deal with the exotic. I was lucky that one of my first movies, One Million Years B.C.. was made in Europe by a British company. The Brits, and a lot of the rest of Europe, seemed to really love exotic women. The fact that I was American and exotic just made me more appealing to them.
Speaking of America’s problems with ethnicity, you caused some controversy with 100 Rifles, the 1969 western that featured you and Jim Brown in one of Hollywood’s first interracial sex scenes.
Was that controversial? I don’t remember. Maybe it was and the studio kept it from me.
You weren’t getting hate mail from angry racists?
No, not at all. At least not that I was aware of. I really didn’t see what the big deal was. I’ve always personally been color blind. Growing up, I thought Lena Horne was amazing, and Diane Carroll was amazing, and I absolutely fell in love with Sidney Poitier. Whether they were black or white or whatever, it wasn’t a big thing for me. When I was doing 100 Rifles and I found out I’d be working with Jim Brown, I was more concerned with whether he could act, because he was primarily known as a football player. But he was great.
Jim Brown once said he thought the 100 Rifles director “just wanted to piss off some white folks.” That never occurred to you?
Really? He said that?
Well, he wrote it in a piece for Ebony magazine.
That’s interesting. Maybe Jim got hate mail, I don’t know. I never got any hate mail. And the studio never called me and said, “Oh boy, we’re going to have to do some damage control. The reaction has not been good.” I mean, okay fine, I’m not brain dead. I knew that it would probably be loaded for some people. And the studio might’ve thought it was a way to…. market the movie. I was very much the girl of the moment, and to put me in a very sensual scene with Jim Brown, I can see how that might get a big reaction.
But you didn’t take the role thinking “I’m going to make a statement about interracial couples?”
Not at all.
What about a film like Myra Breckinridge? You must’ve known even before it started shooting that you weren’t going to get a warm reception.
Well, no, I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. It was based on a brilliant book by Gore Vidal, about sexual duality and the masculine or feminine aspects of every personality, written about in a way that really hadn’t been expressed before. It wasn’t traditional male and female stuff. It was talking about homosexuality or lesbianism or whatever. It was about crossing the line and breaking new ground sexually. But the problem with the movie was it had none of the fun and absurdity and truth of that exploration, which was dealt with so effectively in the book. It was just a bunch of weird scenes strung together. It became this sort of Fellini-esque crazy dream that’s all over the place. It wasn’t the funny adventure it should’ve been. It was a bizarre adventure with some offensive things in it. A lot of audiences didn’t really understand what was going on.
The film recently screened at Lincoln Center. Did it feel like the crowd was laughing at you or with you?
I couldn’t really say. They seemed to like it. I’m probably the most critical about it. I did a Q&A after one of the screenings, with Simon Doonan, and at one point he asked me, “Is there nothing you liked about this movie?” And I said, “Well, I liked the experience of it. I enjoyed making it.” But there’s not much you can do as an actor when a film is falling apart. I couldn’t control that the script wasn’t coming together. Each rewrite got further and further from making any sense.
Not many actors get to make notes.
That’s unfortunately true. Sometimes the producers or director will involve you in a discussion if things are in flux, but most of the time you just have to work with what they give you.
You were a studio contract player at the time. Did they just put you in Myra Breckinridge or did you ask to be in it?
I had read the book, and I thought it was hysterically funny. I knew the studio was making it into a movie, and I heard they were talking to Anne Bancroft about doing the lead. When she turned it down, I called (producer) Dick Zanuck and said, “I don’t know what kind of actress you’re looking for, but it occurred to me after reading the book, if there was a guy who wanted to change himself into a movie star woman” — and that’s what this character was about. He begins as Myron, a very gay movie critic who’s totally infatuated with all of these swashbuckling heroines. He wanted to switch over and become a woman like that. So I told Dick, “If this guy wanted to become a glamorous female movie star, he might like to look like me.” And he said, “Oh my god, you have a point. Let me get (co-producer) David (Brown) on the line.”
At that point were you aware that the role involved wearing a strap-on and raping a guy?
When I signed on, it was understood that there was not going to be a rape scene. And then of course it suddenly appeared in the script. But it was very vague. They weren’t very specific in the description. So I’m wondering if they’re going to try something. (Director) Michael (Sarne) used to torture me on the set a lot. He would come around with this red rectangular box of a certain length and a certain width. And it was clear, you know… what might be in the box.
And he’d be like, “I have something here for you.” I’d just look away, wouldn’t even acknowledge him. Finally the big day arrives and we’re about to shoot the scene and he says, “Well, now is the time.” I turn to him and say, “Michael, just drop it! I am not strapping anything on!” And I didn’t. He said, “Well that’s not fun.” But I wouldn’t budge.
I’m sure your male co-star was relieved.
He didn’t even know. The poor guy who played Rusty Godowski, he was like a deer in headlights. He read the script and he was like, “I don’t understand this scene.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him. I was just like, “Yeah, it is a little vague, isn’t it?” I just could not make the poor guy more nervous than he was already. When we shot it, I kind of suspended my disbelief and thought, “Well okay, I guess we’re doing this. But as long as there’s nothing graphic, it’ll be okay. I’m just here to play the role.” Everything about that movie, the good and the bad, it was if nothing else… a challenge.
At least more challenging than One Million Years B.C..
Oh come on. You could say a lot of things about that movie, but challenging isn’t one of them.
How often do you get asked about the fur bikini?
Every day, every day. I have people that handle my fan mail, and every day tons of photos come in, with requests for autographs. The fur bikini is the perennial one. I do feel very fortunate, because I had no suspicion that a dinosaur movie would ever pay off for me as an actress. I figured, it’s going to be swept under the carpet, nobody will ever see it. I had a couple of small children at the time, and I used to take them over to see Ray Harryhausen. He did all the special effects on the movie, all the stop-motion animation, and he’s pretty much a science fiction legend. Ray would show my kids all the little figurines he used, all the dinosaurs. And then he’d show them how the animation was done, and they were fascinated. So that’s what it seemed like to me. It was great stuff for kids, but maybe not the ideal way for an actress to enter the movie-making scene. I even complained to the studio. I was like, “Please, please don’t make me do the dinosaur movie.” They were like “No, Raquel, you don’t understand. It’s a classic. It’ll live on forever.” Turns out they were right.
Where’s the fur bikini now? Did they let you have it?
I’ve been told it’s in mothballs waiting to be hung in the Smithsonian museum.
I don’t know, really. That’s what they told me, and I suspect it was said in jest, but the idea of putting it in the Smithsonian has been tossed around.
Did you at least get the right of first refusal? If anybody deserves to have that famous bikini hanging in their closet, it’s you. It’s practically a family heirloom.
(Laughs.) Oh stop! Actually, there was never just one bikini. They made several of them. They were created by this wonderful costume designer, Carl Toms, and he had to do it in triplicate. Because, as he explained it to me, at one point my character would get wet, and then there was a fight scene and blood would get on it. So they had to have several versions of the same costume, and they all had to be form-fitting. So he literally designed it around me. Carl just draped me in doe-skin, and I stood there while he worked on it with scissors.
You had only three lines of dialogue in the movie. Do you remember them all?
I only one I remember is (in a flirty cave woman voice) “Me Loana . . . You Tumak.”
(Laughs.) You liked that?
That may be the greatest moment in my journalism career.
Well, you’re very welcome.
When you have so few lines, do you over think them? Do you practice them again and again and again, just to make sure you have it right?
I probably did over think it. Not that it mattered. I went to the director, Don Chaffey, very early in the shoot and said, “Don, may I have a word with you?” And he sighed and said, “Yeah, what is it?” I could tell right away that he was not very interested. “Well, I’ve read the script,” I said, “and I’ve been thinking…” And he turned to me and said, “Don’t.”
And I thought, okay, that in a nutshell is what it’s all about. They don’t want to hear anything from me. Just show up in the costume and take orders. He said, “See that rock over there? That’s rock A. When I say action, you run from rock A and when you get to the middle of the frame, you look up at the sky like there’s a giant turtle growling down at you. You scream, run to rock B and we break for lunch.”
As far as he was concerned, you were just a set piece?
Yes, exactly. I mean, he wasn’t unkind as a director. But when I wanted to possibly find ways to enhance my character, to make her more vulnerable or have some kind of backstory, he was not interested. That was the hardest part, to realize that I was really an object. Not just to Don, but to the film industry in general. I was a completely non-verbal object that wasn’t allowed to talk more than necessary. And that isn’t exactly my personality, as you can now hear.
Were you concerned about the iffy science of One Million Years B.C.?
How do you mean?
The whole dinosaurs-and-people-living-together problem. The tagline on the movie poster read “This is the Way It Was,” but that wasn’t in any way true.
Well sure, the whole thing was improbable. I think you need to have suspension of disbelief to really enjoy this kind of movie. Look at something like Star Wars. How do we know that there are galaxies out there like that, or characters like that? We don’t know. But it’s not about knowing, it’s about imagination and a willingness to visit a fantasy land.
I understand what you’re saying, but Star Wars was about a fictional universe. One Million Years B.C. was about things that supposedly happened on our planet in ways we know for a fact didn’t happen.
(Laughs.) I guess that’s true.
Harryhausen said the movie wasn’t made for “professors.” But my nephew is five and even he knows that dinosaurs were extinct millions of years before humans evolved.
Listen, it wasn’t meant to be historically accurate, in the sense of where evolution was during that specific time. It was, I think, just an opportunity to see cavemen and cavegirls fighting off these fantastic Spielberg-esque prehistoric monsters. If you could forget that none of it made any sense, it was thrilling and even a little scary. My poor daughter has still never gotten over seeing me carried away by a pterodactyl and fed to her young chicks somewhere on the top of a volcano. She was horrified.
We should talk about the Hottest 100 Women of All Time list. You beat out some pretty impressive luminaries like Marilyn Monroe, Bettie Page and Madonna. Are you surprised?
I don’t really understand how I could be ahead of Marilyn Monroe. That just seems bizarre to me. I mean, you must have gotten tons of letters from people complaining. I can only imagine what they said. Probably something like “Are you kidding me? Stop it already! What’s the matter with you guys? Are you blind or what?”
The only disagreement I’ve heard is that some people weren’t crazy about Jennifer Aniston being in the top slot.
Well that comes with the territory. That’s why it’s such a bad position. Nobody wants to be number one, because that’s where all the heat is. But I like Jennifer Aniston well enough. She probably deserves to be at the top. But then so do a lot of other people. It’s kind of the problem with this whole sex symbol stuff. Sex appeal is such a subjective thing. When you meet somebody that you know mostly from photos or movies, it’s not really the same as meeting them in person, when you can connect with them as a human being. In my career I’ve met so many men who were supposed to be the sexiest men on the planet, and I’m standing right next to them, thinking, “Hmm. Really?” And then there’s just the opposite. You meet people who are super attractive in real life but it’s never translated to the big screen. It’s just such a weird, subjective thing. Remind me, how’s the list described again? Is it hottest women in film or something?
Of all time.
Okay, so already the field is very narrow. Even though “of all time” could mean anything, any walk of life, it’s immediately narrowed to famous people. Because those are the people that most of your readers are going to know. If somebody is widely considered to be sexy, they’re probably in the movies or on TV. That’s not where all the sexy people are, but it’s where all the sexy people are that everybody knows and everybody agrees are sexy.
You think we should’ve made the list more specific?
I don’t know if that would’ve made a difference. I was in another list recently, I forget what magazine did it, that was the sexiest women in bikinis. I was in the top five, I think, but the number one pick was Phoebe Cates. It was for some famous scene she did in a movie, I forget the name.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
(Laughs.) You’ve seen it?
More times than I care to admit.
Apparently she whipped it all off and came up out of the water. And coming up out of the water wearing nothing or next to nothing is such a crowd pleaser.
It really is. You must’ve done a few of those in your time, right?
What, coming out of water in a movie?
Am I forgetting something obvious?
Oh certainly. I did that in One Million Years B.C..
Now I feel foolish.
It’s okay. It’s not the memory everybody has of that movie. More people remember the poster of me in the fur bikini than anything else. Which is just crazy to me.
Does an iconic picture like that happen by accident, or does it require a lot of meticulous planning and calculation?
You can’t really plan something like that. It was about capturing a moment more than a pre-planned pose. I don’t think even the studio had any idea that it would become as big as it did. I was this nobody, shooting a dinosaur movie at the top of a volcano, literally twenty miles up, at the top of the Canary Islands. Every once in a while a unit photographer would come by, during our breaks in shooting, and snap a few pictures of me. I had no idea that those photos would go anywhere, much less be distributed all over the planet. And it happened so fast. After the shoot was over, I flew into Heathrow and the moment I walked off the plane, I knew everything had changed. Suddenly everybody knew who I was. There was all this hubbub, and it was a little frightening.
In your memoir Beyond the Cleavage, you called yourself the “Rodney Dangerfield of sex symbols.” You didn’t feel like you got the respect you deserved?
Yeah, I felt like there was always a struggle. There was this perception of “Oh, she’s just a sexpot. She’s just a body. She probably can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.” In my first couple of movies, I had no dialogue. It was frustrating. And then I started to realize that it came with the territory. Look at somebody like Marilyn Monroe. I always wondered why she seemed so unhappy. Everybody worshiped her and she was so extraordinary and hypnotic on screen. But they never nominated her for any of her musicals or comedies, as good as she was. Because for some reason, somebody with her sex appeal, her indescribable attraction, is rarely taken seriously. Hollywood doesn’t honor comedy and it doesn’t honor sex appeal. And they definitely don’t give awards to either of them. So you always feel a little insecure.
Are you surprised by how mainstream sexuality has changed in the last four decades? There seems to be a lot less subtlety.
There really is. You see it the most in the music business. It used to be about a great song, great lyrics and a great voice. And now everybody is more concerned with being cutting edge and pushing the envelope. You have to be funkier, you have to be more audacious and more provocative than anybody else. When there’s somebody like Adele, it seems revolutionary because she’s not out there in a g-string and pasties. You forget that all music, all art, isn’t about T&A and girls spreading their legs for the camera.
I just watched your 1967 movie Fathom, and the opening sequence is one of the most understated erotic things I’ve seen in a long time. It’s like five minutes of you putting together a parachute, but it’s weirdly sexual. I can’t put my finger on why, but I would not feel comfortable watching it with my mother.
(Laughs.) You’re silly. The guy who did that, Maurice Binder, he also did the title sequence for Barbarella, where Jane Fonda’s floating and taking off her spacesuit. And he did a few of the James Bond title sequences.
With the gun barrel?
Yeah, and the women in silhouettes. I think he understood what was sexy and what wasn’t. He knew how to be sexy without being profane about it, and without being too graphic. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really understand it at the time. When we were shooting that opening moment in Fathom, it seemed silly to me. They had to explain it to me, and even then I was like, “Okay, fine, whatever you think.”
Why aren’t more films like that anymore? Are modern audiences just not smart enough to pick up on some well-placed penis symbolism?
(Laughs.) Well, I don’t know about that. But I remember Jimmy Coburn once said to me, “You know what’s the sexiest thing of all? A little mystery.” And he was so right about that. When you put it all out there, there’s nothing left to the imagination. So where am I going to participate? I’ve said this before and I still agree with it, the most erogenous zone is the brain. It’s all happening there. Otherwise, it’s just body parts.
You once said that you think sex is overrated. Could you elaborate?
I mean just the sex act itself.
Really? Are you sure you’ve been doing it right?
I think we’ve gotten to the point in our culture where we’re all sex addicts, literally. We have equated happiness in life with as many orgasms as you can possibly pack in, regardless of where it is that you deposit your love interest.
Okay, admittedly that doesn’t make sex sound very appealing at all.
It’s just dehumanizing. And I have to honestly say, I think this era of porn is at least partially responsible for it. Where is the anticipation and the personalization? It’s all pre-fab now. You have these images coming at you unannounced and unsolicited. It just gets to be so plastic and phony to me. Maybe men respond to that. But is it really better than an experience with a real life girl that he cares about? It’s an exploitation of the poor male’s libidos. Poor babies, they can’t control themselves.
I cannot dispute any of what you’re saying.
I just imagine them sitting in front of their computers, completely annihilated. They haven’t done anything, they don’t have a job, they barely have ambition anymore. And it makes for laziness and a not very good sex partner. Do they know how to negotiate something that isn’t pre-fab and injected directly into their brain?
You make some good points, but it could also be argued that railing against kids today and their sexual obsessiveness could come across as a little over-the-hill cranky and prudish.
I know it does, and I’m fine with that. I don’t care if I’m becoming one of those old fogies who says, “Back in my day we didn’t have to hear about sex all the time.” Can you imagine? My fantasies were all made up on my own. They’re ruining us with all the explanations and the graphicness. Nobody remembers what it’s like to be left to form your own ideas about what’s erotic and sexual. We’re not allowed any individuality. I thought that was the fun of the whole thing. It’s my fantasy. I didn’t pick it off the Internet somewhere. It’s my fantasy.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on MensHealth.com.)