That impression was, of course, filtered through Ms. Welch’s sex-symbol identity. She was allowed to hang with the men, but she still had a prurient appeal. “Those are earmarks for what people want to see,” she said of her costuming in B.C. She reminisced about a photographer from Life who posed her in action scenes as well as more stereotypical sex-bomb settings: “One time I was fighting a bull—and at one point I was just dancing with this towel,” she recalled. “He was convinced that girls in motion were more interesting.” The mere fact that Ms. Welch was dynamic in her films—rather than being a Lana Turner studio still-life—made her interesting, no matter the content and, in her way, revolutionary.
Her most conscious attempt to toy with her image may have been starring in Myra Breckinridge, the film based on Gore Vidal’s gender-bending novel. (The film screens at Lincoln Center on Feb. 10.) In it, she portrays the end result of a sex-change operation, with Observer film critic Rex Reed playing the “before.”
“I thought it was the funniest book,” she said of Mr. Vidal’s novel. “They were talking about Anne Bancroft playing the role. By that point there wasn’t even a script around … I started to become interested. I told the producer, ‘I don’t know what direction you’re thinking—but if a guy would like to become a girl, maybe he would like to be me!’”
Deviation from Mr. Vidal’s text, Ms. Welch told The Observer, led to the messiness of the final product. At a 2004 screening at LACMA, “we all sat and had a laugh. It’s great fun—it was such a light subject. And, yes, it’s a curiosity. That book is going to be something that people will refer back to, and then they’ll go to the movie and say, ‘What happened here?’”
For all its flaws, the film accurately documents a culture-wide fixation on the body of Raquel Welch. The actress herself, though, remains more interested in her later work, and says she drew the film series’ organizers’ attention to her role as Queenie in the 1975 Merchant Ivory production The Wild Party, which was not a commercial success. “It was very satisfying for me to do. The sex symbol thing can grow tired—for the person who’s doing it, especially.”
Ms. Welch pushed past early categorization, too, in 1981, to star in Woman of the Year on Broadway, then playing a nightclub act, “because I was in singing-dancing mode. But eventually I came back to H-wood. My personal life brought me back.”
Ms. Welch doesn’t see all her films as of a piece. “If you think about it, there was a lot of variety in there,” she said, pausing to glance over the Lincoln Center list. “You can start out with Fantastic Voyage, and that wasn’t enormously sexy—I was playing a lab scientist! … I think there’s a lot of range. One Million Years B.C., yeah, O.K. …” She trailed off.
“But Myra was a chancy project, and it was a Gore Vidal book—and all that went on in the book didn’t get to the screen in the manner I know Gore would have liked. Is The Three Musketeers the same as The Wild Party the same as The Last of Sheba? I think there’s a lot of range.
“Maybe my photo images in magazines—there were things that were more visually oriented. But you can never break [out of] that, no matter how you try.”