Venus in a Fur Bikini
‘My name is Raquel Welch. I am here for visual effects, and I have two of them.’
Raquel Welch came to fame after starring in One Million Years B.C. in 1966. She only had three lines in the film but her fur bikini – made from deer skin – became a defining image of the 60’s.
The fur bikini made her famous but it also confined Welch to roles that affirmed her status as a sex goddess. A publicity poster of her wearing the fur bikini made her an instant pin up babe. The New York Times declared Welch was ‘a marvellous breathing monument to womankind’.
She then appeared in films including The Biggest Bundle of them All (1968) which was filmed at Cinecittà Studios in Rome. In the heist film and she played the sexy girlfriend of an Italian gangster. The poster for the film featured Welch in a skimpy yellow bikini. It was publicized as, ‘The World’s Sexiest Robbery’.
Unfortunately despite being a gifted singer and dancer Welch didn’t get to show her moves until about 13 years later. She starred in the Broadway musical Woman of the Year. Welch acquired the lead role after Lauren Bacall went away on holiday.
A New York Times critic pompously stated, ‘This lady can move and she can dance – and I think she can sing’. He also confessed he hoped she would go on to star in her own musical. It didn’t happen until quite some time later – and Welch finally became the acclaimed star of her own musical. She also had her own singing, dancing shows in Las Vegas.
For as Raquel Welch later said,
‘Americans have always had sex symbols. It’s a time-honoured tradition and I’m flattered to have been one. But it’s hard to have a long, fruitful career once you’ve been stereotyped that way. That’s why I’m proud to say I’ve endured. Being a sex symbol was rather like being a convict.’
Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine – known for fetishising the female body and exploitation of Hefner’s play bunnies, featured her several times. They nominated Raquel Welch as ‘the most desired woman of the 70’s. Cleverly she made damned sure she never appeared fully naked in the Playboy photographs.
As she put it. ‘You know what’s the sexiest thing of all? A little mystery.’
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Welch starred in several Westerns including 100 Rifles (1969) and Bandolero! (1968). In Hannie Caulder (1972) she portrayed a frontier woman seeking revenge on three repellent and depraved bank robbers who raped her before murdering her husband.
It was a courageous role to take on, as was her starring role in Kansas City Bomber (1972), which gave Welch the chance to do some great character work. She did her own skating as well as selected stunts. Ostensibly the film’s about competitive wrestling – on roller skates – but it possesses a darker subtext.
In 1970 Welch gave a brilliant performance in the 1970’s black comedy Myra Breckinridge. The film was divisive, transgressive and many feathers were ruffled.
Adapted from the satirical novel of the same name by Gore Vidal, the film begins with a film critic named Myron Breckinridge having a sex change. He morphs into Myra Breckinridge (Raquel Welch).
Myra Breckinridge, wreaks havoc and targets a young macho actor as a symbol of everything she’s fighting against. Myra gives a whole new meaning to the descriptor ‘feminist’.
A bizarre scene of Welch donning a strap-on contributed to making Myra Breckinridge one of the edgiest films of the 70’s.
Myra is aided and abetted by the wisecracking Mae West at her most lascivious. West plays Leticia van Allen, a casting agent who seduces the young men who come to her for auditions.
Welch later stated, ‘Myra Breckinridge is the antithesis of a sex symbol. She’s revolutionary. She’s a warrior.’
Rachel Welch’s biography, ‘Beyond the Cleavage’ (2012) reveals the wit, intelligence and humour that’s patently obvious in her many interviews. Unlike most celebrities, she actually wrote the biography and didn’t use a ghost writer.
Given Raquel Welch has just departed this life, she should have the last word –
‘I’d taken the bull by the horns by liberating myself and creating a career. It took guts – it was scary and chancy – but they discounted me as empty-headed: some little piece of fluff without any brain that happened to come along.’
photo: Raquel Welch in the film, One Million Years B.C. (1966).