Jo Raquel Tejada, better known as Raquel Welch, is an American actress, author and sex symbol.
When I signed on [for Myra Breckinridge (1970)], it was understood that there was not going to be a rape scene. And then of course it suddenly appeared in the script. But it was very vague. They weren’t very specific in the description. So I’m wondering if they’re going to try something. (Director) Michael Sarne used to torture me on the set a lot. He would come around with this red rectangular box of a certain length and a certain width. And it was clear, you know… what might be in the box. And he’d be like, “I have something here for you.” I’d just look away, wouldn’t even acknowledge him. Finally the big day arrives and we’re about to shoot the scene and he says, “Well, now is the time.” I turn to him and say, “Michael, just drop it! I am not strapping anything on!” And I didn’t. He said, “Well that’s not fun.” But I wouldn’t budge.
I had read the book, and I thought it was hysterically funny. I knew the studio was making it into a movie, and I heard they were talking to Anne Bancroft about doing the lead. When she turned it down, I called (producer) ‘Richard Zanuck’ 9qv) and said, “I don’t know what kind of actress you’re looking for, but it occurred to me after reading the book, if there was a guy who wanted to change himself into a movie star woman” – and that’s what this character was about. He begins as Myron, a very gay movie critic who’s totally infatuated with all of these swashbuckling heroines. He wanted to switch over and become a woman like that. So I told Dick, “If this guy wanted to become a glamorous female movie star, he might like to look like me.” And he said, “Oh my god, you have a point. Let me get (co-producer) David Brown on the line.”
I did a Q&A after one of the screenings [at Lincoln Center, NYC, in 2012 for Myra Breckinridge (1970)], with Simon Doonan, and at one point he asked me, “Is there nothing you liked about this movie?” And I said, “Well, I liked the experience of it. I enjoyed making it.” But there’s not much you can do as an actor when a film is falling apart. I couldn’t control that the script wasn’t coming together. Each rewrite got further and further from making any sense.
[Myra Breckinridge (1970)] was based on a brilliant book by Gore Vidal, about sexual duality and the masculine or feminine aspects of every personality, written about in a way that really hadn’t been expressed before. It wasn’t traditional male and female stuff. It was talking about homosexuality or lesbianism or whatever. It was about crossing the line and breaking new ground sexually. But the problem with the movie was it had none of the fun and absurdity and truth of that exploration, which was dealt with so effectively in the book. It was just a bunch of weird scenes strung together. It became this sort of Fellini-esque crazy dream that’s all over the place. It wasn’t the funny adventure it should’ve been. It was a bizarre adventure with some offensive things in it. A lot of audiences didn’t really understand what was going on.
[Don Chaffey] wasn’t unkind as a director. But when I wanted to possibly find ways to enhance my character, to make her more vulnerable or have some kind of backstory, he was not interested. That was the hardest part, to realize that I was really an object. Not just to Don, but to the film industry in general. I was a completely non-verbal object that wasn’t allowed to talk more than necessary. And that isn’t exactly my personality, as you can now hear.
I probably did over think [my lines in One Million Years B.C. (1966)]. Not that it mattered. I went to the director, Don Chaffey, very early in the shoot and said, “Don, may I have a word with you?” And he sighed and said, “Yeah, what is it?” I could tell right away that he was not very interested. “Well, I’ve read the script,” I said, “and I’ve been thinking…” And he turned to me and said, “Don’t.” And I thought, okay, that in a nutshell is what it’s all about. They don’t want to hear anything from me. Just show up in the costume and take orders. He said, “See that rock over there? That’s rock A. When I say action, you run from rock A and when you get to the middle of the frame, you look up at the sky like there’s a giant turtle growling down at you. You scream, run to rock B and we break for lunch.”
Actually, there was never just one bikini. They made several of them. They were created by this wonderful costume designer, Carl Toms, and he had to do it in triplicate. Because, as he explained it to me, at one point my character would get wet, and then there was a fight scene and blood would get on it. So they had to have several versions of the same costume, and they all had to be form-fitting. So he literally designed it around me. Carl just draped me in doe-skin, and I stood there while he worked on it with scissors.
Every day, every day. I have people that handle my fan mail, and every day tons of photos come in, with requests for autographs. The fur bikini [from One Million Years B.C. (1966)] is the perennial one. I do feel very fortunate, because I had no suspicion that a dinosaur movie would ever pay off for me as an actress. I figured, it’s going to be swept under the carpet, nobody will ever see it. I had a couple of small children at the time, and I used to take them over to see Ray Harryhausen. He did all the special effects on the movie, all the stop-motion animation, and he’s pretty much a science fiction legend. Ray would show my kids all the little figurines he used, all the dinosaurs. And then he’d show them how the animation was done, and they were fascinated. So that’s what it seemed like to me. It was great stuff for kids, but maybe not the ideal way for an actress to enter the movie-making scene. I even complained to the studio. I was like, “Please, please don’t make me do the dinosaur movie.” They were like “No, Raquel, you don’t understand. It’s a classic. It’ll live on forever.” Turns out they were right.
You could say a lot of things about [One Million Years B.C. (1966)], but challenging isn’t one of them.
I don’t care if I’m becoming one of those old fogies who says, “Back in my day we didn’t have to hear about sex all the time.” Can you imagine? My fantasies were all made up on my own. They’re ruining us with all the explanations and the graphicness. Nobody remembers what it’s like to be left to form your own ideas about what’s erotic and sexual. We’re not allowed any individuality. I thought that was the fun of the whole thing. It’s my fantasy. I didn’t pick it off the Internet somewhere. It’s my fantasy.
[In 2012] I think we’ve gotten to the point in our culture where we’re all sex addicts, literally. We have equated happiness in life with as many orgasms as you can possibly pack in, regardless of where it is that you deposit your love interest. It’s just dehumanizing. And I have to honestly say, I think this era of porn is at least partially responsible for it. Where is the anticipation and the personalization? It’s all pre-fab now. You have these images coming at you unannounced and unsolicited. It just gets to be so plastic and phony to me. Maybe men respond to that. But is it really better than an experience with a real life girl that he cares about? It’s an exploitation of the poor male’s libidos. Poor babies, they can’t control themselves. I just imagine them sitting in front of their computers, completely annihilated. They haven’t done anything, they don’t have a job, they barely have ambition anymore. And it makes for laziness and a not very good sex partner. Do they know how to negotiate something that isn’t pre-fab and injected directly into their brain?
… I remember James Coburn once said to me, “You know what’s the sexiest thing of all? A little mystery.” And he was so right about that. When you put it all out there, there’s nothing left to the imagination. So where am I going to participate? I’ve said this before and I still agree with it, the most erogenous zone is the brain. It’s all happening there. Otherwise, it’s just body parts.
I think [title designer Maurice Binder] understood what was sexy and what wasn’t. He knew how to be sexy without being profane about it, and without being too graphic. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really understand it at the time. When we were shooting that opening moment in Fathom (1967), it seemed silly to me. They had to explain it to me, and even then I was like, “Okay, fine, whatever you think.”
There was this perception of “Oh, she’s just a sexpot. She’s just a body. She probably can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.” In my first couple of movies, I had no dialogue. It was frustrating. And then I started to realize that it came with the territory. Look at somebody like Marilyn Monroe. I always wondered why she seemed so unhappy. Everybody worshipped her and she was so extraordinary and hypnotic on screen. But they never nominated her for any of her musicals or comedies, as good as she was. Because for some reason, somebody with her sex appeal, her indescribable attraction, is rarely taken seriously. Hollywood doesn’t honor comedy and it doesn’t honor sex appeal. And they definitely don’t give awards to either of them. So you always feel a little insecure.
Once you get rid of the idea that you must please other people before you please yourself, and you begin to follow your own instincts – only then can you be successful. You become more satisfied, and when you are, other people will tend to be satisfied by what you do.
Being a sex symbol was rather like being a convict.
[in 1973] I couldn’t stand that my husband was being unfaithful. I am Raquel Welch – understand?
The mind is an erogenous zone.
Americans have always had sex symbols. It’a time-honored 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.
[about Mae West] I do think she was a spectacular talent. There’s no question she was a comedic genius, but I did, in person, actually feel like she was some kind of a dockworker in drag.
If you have physical attractiveness you don’t have to act.
My father was a perfectionist. We had to hop to everything and have marvelous table manners. I could only wear navy blue and gray and white. He wanted me to be interested in tennis and horses just like a little princess, but I couldn’t stand such things.
[in 2008] I have pictures of me at 23 or 24 and I think, “Oh my God, I was really once that size!” But actually I think my face looks better now.
[About divorcing first husband James Welch] Always having to be a perfect vision can be hard. My first husband was a good person. The second (Patrick Curtis) turned into a Svengali – I felt I was being manipulated. I should never have run off with the two kids (Damon and Tahnee) – I should have been more patient. Even though Jim was being horrible I should have stuck it out. I often say to my sister, when I look back over my four husbands, he was the best.
[About her daughter Tahnee Welch] She is much more beautiful than I was.
[About her marriage to James Welch] I was crazy in love with him – I was sure the moment I saw him he would be the father of my children. He was beautiful, he had this surly quality, and that was it! We were foolish, we ran away and got married, had two children too quickly. It was a romantic fantasy, which I am really good at.
I’ve always personally been color blind. Growing up, I thought Lena Horne was amazing, and Diahann Carroll was amazing, and I absolutely fell in love with Sidney Poitier. Whether they were black or white or whatever, it wasn’t a big thing for me. When I was doing 100 Rifles (1969) and I found out I’d be working with Jim Brown, I was more concerned with whether he could act, because he was primarily known as a football player. But he was great.
[Hollywood name-changing] was mostly an American insecurity. Americans were not sure how to deal with the exotic. I was lucky that one of my first movies, One Million Years B.C. (1966) was made in Europe by a British company. The Brits, and a lot of the rest of Europe, seemed to really love exotic women. The fact that I was American and exotic just made me more appealing to them.
[20th Century Fox] said it ["Raquel"] was difficult to pronounce, nobody’s going to remember it. And they had a point. In school, nobody could pronounce my name. They just called me Rocky. But school kids are one thing, your career as an adult woman is another. I took it as a challenge. I was like, “Well, let’s see what happens.” You either embrace your identity or you let them force you into homogenizing yourself.
Not everybody is comfortable with my ethnicity. When I first came along in the business, they [20th Century Fox] didn’t really like the idea of my name being Raquel. I signed with them and almost immediately they wanted me to change my name. They came to me and said, “We have the solution. We figured it all out. You’re going to be Debbie Welch.” I think they were paranoid that Raquel sounded too ethnic. And I thought, maybe I should be more paranoid than I am. But I wasn’t raised thinking of myself or my background as particularly exotic. I felt very American and middle of the road. I knew that I had a little salsa in my blood, but on my mother’s side there was the whole English heritage.
He didn’t even know. The poor guy who played Rusty Godowski [Roger Herren], he was like a deer in headlights. He read the script and he was like, “I don’t understand this scene.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him. I was just like, “Yeah, it is a little vague, isn’t it?” I just could not make the poor guy more nervous than he was already. When we shot it, I kind of suspended my disbelief and thought, “Well okay, I guess we’re doing this. But as long as there’s nothing graphic, it’ll be okay. I’m just here to play the role.” Everything about that movie, the good and the bad, it was if nothing else… a challenge.
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