Friday February 17, 2023
Raquel Welch (1940-2023)
Isn't that what Red called her in “Shawshank Redemption”? In that great Morgan Freeman voice? She was the one on the wall when Andy Dufresne made his break. It might've been her most famous movie role.
None of Andy's three pinups, by the way, were known by their birth names:
- Rita Hayworth, née Margarita Carmen Cansino
- Marilyn Monroe, née Norma Jeane Mortenson
- Raquel Welch, née Jo-Raquel Tejada
Marilyn went alliterative, while the ethnicity of the two Latinas was covered up. Which was the style at the time.
Raquel was the big sex symbol when I was growing up in the 1970s—a one-named wonder—but I probably saw her more on variety or talk shows, or in jokes from hosts of variety or talk shows. She was the butt of a lot of jokes. One name, two assets. She was never a crush for me, though. My crushes were TV, initially: Ginger and Mary Ann; Farrah and Cheryl; Lindsay. The hips are what stun me now. She was curvy all the way around.
The first movie I saw her in was “Fantastic Voyage.” I'd read the book by Isaac Asimov in my teenage sci-fi phase and saw the movie ... in school? On television? I was disappointed. Special effects could not yet replicate what our imaginations could. Some wag said she was the best special effect in the movie. Was that her first substantial role? Before then, on IMDb, it's “Stewardess” and “Woman in Lobby” and “Miss France.” One of the many starlets in the room. For “Voyage,” she was a scientist, Cora, second-billed, and suited up for the journey like everyone else. The bikinis, fur or otherwise, came later. The poster for “One Million Years B.C.,” more than the movie, broke her. Both ways?
What was the second movie I saw her in? Probably “Bedazzled” in my 20s. She played Lilian Lust, the Devil's ultimate temptress. A lot of her roles were like that—jokes about the feelings she evoked: Lust, Jugs, Priestess With a Whip. Even being cast as “Myra Breckenridge,” Gore Vidal's transgender hero, was a 70s-era joke. That was once a man? Get outta town. So many of her starring roles were in middling '60s heist movies, or cop movies, or westerns. They were backward-looking rather than nouvelle vague. She trusted the old hands.
I vaguely remember the ads for “Kansas City Bomber,” but not sure why. Because she looked great? Because it was a movie I maybe wanted to see but never saw? Then she did the “Musketeers” movies, to acclaim, and Stephen Sondheim's “Last of Sheila,” and my friend Stephen Manes' “Mother, Jugs and Speed” with Bill Cosby and Harvey Keitel. By then she was mid-30s and her bedmate in “Myra”—Farrah—was the sex symbol. Raquel played off her rep in “Mork & Mindy” and appeared in Playboy, then did the strong-woman TV movie thing, “The Legend of Far Walks Woman,” and that was it. She was gone. She barely made anything in the 1980s. Her daughter, Tahnee, was the Welch of the decade. In the '90s, she again played off her rep on sitcoms, “Seinfeld” most memorably, getting into a catfight with Elaine. In the '00s, post-J-Lo, she was finally allowed to play Latina in supporting roles in “Tortilla Soup” and “American Family.”
What might've happened if she'd been allowed to keep her name and ethnicity throughout her career? Or if musicals were a thing at the time? (She wanted to be a song-and-dance woman.) Or if she wasn't the big sex symbol when terms like objectification were entering the cultural vernacular? Maybe the same. Look at J-Lo. It's tough to make the right choices once you have choices.
Much muchness has left the earth. Rest in peace.