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.”
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.”