In 1970, just after the opening of Myra Breckinridge, in which she plays a post-op transsexual, Raquel Welch met Janis Joplin on The Dick Cavett Show. “Who but Dick Cavett would think up that combination?” Ms. Welch laughed, in a recent interview with The Observer. “I happened to be a big, huge fan of Janis Joplin—she probably wouldn’t have known that. … I was gaga … and she was looking at me like I was from the moon.”
Like Janis Joplin, Ms. Welch is an immediate signifier of a certain moment in America’s cultural history—consider, for instance, the appearance of her toned, bikini-clad figure on the cover of Time magazine in 1969. A 1979 Playboy cover dubbed her “The Decade’s Most Desired Woman.” Presenting an Oscar in 1970, Ms. Welch notoriously quipped, “I’m here for Visual Effects, and I have two of them.” If Ms. Joplin exemplified the postwar American masculine woman, chugging Southern Comfort and gnarling her hair, Ms. Welch was the picture of robust, confident femininity. (See her most notable moments here.)
That cultural impact is inherent in the title of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s five-day retrospective of her work, entitled “Cinematic Goddess: American Sex Symbol, The Films of Raquel Welch.” She’ll be interviewed by Mr. Cavett once again, and in attendance at screenings of films like Kansas City Bomber (in which she plays a roller-derby athlete known as “The Hottest Thing on Wheels”) and One Million Years B.C. (in which her leather bikini upstaged Ray Harryhausen’s special effects).
Last seen onscreen in the short-lived 2008 sitcom Welcome to the Captain, Ms. Welch maintains a healthy fanbase: “People do stop me and talk to me about something they saw that they loved,” she said. “It is very satisfying, but I have my own opinions.” In her 2010 memoir, Beyond the Cleavage, she wrote about single parenting and called herself the “Rodney Dangerfield of sex symbols”—she’d gotten insufficient respect.
In her many roles, she was always more man-eater than wilting flower; as such, Ms. Welch sees herself as a figure of liberation, albeit of an unusual sort. “Whatever my film work was, it was a departure from the sex symbol previously, who was blonde and more docile than the characters I portrayed as a sex symbol,” she said. “I think it was a different role for women. Women watch other women, and they are affected by that.” She seemed proud to have been cited by the feminist cultural critic Camille Paglia, who said in a 1995 interview with Playboy: “I love an actress as sensual as Raquel Welch. She and Liz Taylor and that type of woman are the great queens of Hollywood. They have the lush sexuality that I admire, as opposed to the WASPy, desexualized Meryl.”
Meryl Streep came up frequently in The Observer’s conversation with Ms. Welch, who cited the actress’s role in The Iron Lady as one of her favorite recent performances. She also drew a comparison between her own work and Ms. Streep’s: “I felt like, you know, my presence in the world of cinema had a different meaning than Meryl Streep … There was an impact that was made, but it wasn’t the usual.”
Ms. Welch sees that impact most clearly in the work of Sigourney Weaver (in the Alien franchise), Sharon Stone (in Basic Instinct) and, more recently, in the young Rooney Mara (in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). “A lot of times I would play a lot of roles a man would play,” she recalled. “In One Million Years B.C.—yes, the costume was revealing. But I was outdoors all the time, I was fighting to survive, there was a girlfight. I was participating, it was physical, and I was independent. I wasn’t that pushover kind of a girl. And I think that left an impression.”