Raquel Welch obituary: screen sensation who transcended sex-symbol roles

A phenomenon at the height of her career, Welch soared to fame in the 1960s in films such as One Million Years B.C. and Fantastic Voyage.

23 February 2023

By Christina Newland

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

Writing about the screen iconography of a woman like Raquel Welch – who has died after a brief illness aged 82 – is impossible to do without mentioning some of her particular attributes. It’s not a popular task to do so, these days, but it would defy logic, nature and the rules of Hollywood stardom to fail to mention that Welch was one of the most desired women to ever grace the big screen.

One Million Years B.C. (1966)

Those cat-like eyes, that extraordinary hourglass figure, those perma-tanned limbs, that Sphinx-like smile; Welch was a bombshell par excellence, seductive but wearing it lightly. Her fur-bikini-clad image from One Million Years B.C. (1966) would keep her sex symbol image frozen in time – the photo that launched an international sensation and countless dorm room posters – although it would also saddle her with an association to pop culture juvenilia forever. 

Welch, though, had more fight and wit beneath her serene exterior than first met the eye. And while she was more movie star with ‘actor’ as a chaser, her charms and comic timing remain a sparkling part of even her more questionable films. “It’s hard to have a long, fruitful career once you’ve been stereotyped that way,” said Welch later on. “That’s why I’m proud to say I’ve endured.” And endure she did – in Merchant Ivory pictures and girl roller-derby sports flicks, wild Gore Vidal adaptations and song-and-dance television specials, bad and good and in between. 

Born Jo-Raquel Tejada in September 1940 to a Bolivian father and English-American mother, the adolescent Raquel won pageants, put on plays and did ballet in her hometown. By 19, she would be married and would have two children with her first husband, James Welch, before absconding to pursue a show-biz career and becoming a cocktail waitress on the west coast. After a series of tiny parts in popular television shows such as The Virginian and Bewitched, she was cast in a small role in Elvis Presley film Roustabout (1964). Twirling around in skimpy clothes in light entertainments and genre pictures throughout the 1960s, Welch knew how to use what she had to her advantage. She also had no trouble saying as much in an era before second-wave feminism had made its impact. 

“If you’re attractive and you have a good figure, you’re foolish not to use this vehicle to a certain extent,” the young Welch told Dick Clark on American Bandstand, not long after she’d completed production on Richard Fleischer sci-fi Fantastic Voyage (1966). It was that film, along with One Million Years B.C., which would launch her into superstardom, leading to a role in the western Bandolero! (1968) opposite James Stewart and Dean Martin. Welch was both self-deprecating about her acting skills in public and ambitious about them in private: she felt the superficiality which had defined her image in the 60s haunted her throughout the 70s. 

The Wild Party (1975)

Welch often came into conflict with directors who pressured her into further nudity or bedroom scenes. As she wrote in her 2010 memoir Beyond the Cleavage: “Because of my image, there was constant pressure on me to appear nude on camera. […] And whenever I refused to get naked or climb into bed nude with an actor, I was labelled ‘difficult’.” But Welch never compromised on this, utilising body doubles and often turning down roles outright when she did not feel comfortable with their demands. She found it frustrating when her opportunity to do a more serious picture, Merchant Ivory period piece The Wild Party (1975), led to further requests for nudity: she struggled to escape the bounds that had been put on her, although she also knew she’d been complicit in creating them. 

100 Rifles (1969)

Equally, Welch never shied from controversy around sexuality and race, when a star of her calibre almost certainly could have chosen to play it safe. In 1969, she took a part in the western 100 Rifles, where her love scenes with NFL player-turned-leading-man Jim Brown, who was Black, caused furore among some reactionary and racist audience members. And even in what has been considered her screen nadir – the 1970 adaptation of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge, in which she stars as a trans movie critic – she showed herself capable of pushing ‘tasteful’ boundaries, for better or worse, and aligned herself with gay and trans audiences in a time when it was still outré to do so.

Slavered over by every talk show host in the nation and mobbed at film premieres, Welch was no less than an international sensation at the height of her fame, marrying and divorcing four times over the course of her life. But her screen career contained gems that would long transcend the obsession with her figure and her face. In the 70s, she won the Golden Globe for best actress for her part in The Three Musketeers (1973), as the married seamstress who falls for Michael York’s D’Artagnan. At her best, Welch had a Monroe-esque knack for physical comedy and light slapstick; in Kansas City Bomber (1972), doing many of her own stunts, she whirls around with the energy and sexual vitality of a woman who knows she’s a force to be reckoned with.

Beyond her most storied decade, Welch, in her own words, continued to endure, most recently with a memorable cameo in Legally Blonde (2001) and with her final film, romcom How to Be a Latin Lover (2017). But she also endured as a woman both openly sexual and demanding of respect on her own terms, in control of her options and her body: a sex symbol with grit and self-awareness. 

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