Happy 80th Birthday, Raquel Welch (and 50th, “Myra Breckenridge”)

Today we celebrate the 80th birthday of sex symbol and actress Raquel Welch (Jo Raquel Tejada, b. 1940).

Welch was a major pop culture figure in my younger childhood (the early ’70s). I knew her primarily as the subject of jokes on television by comedians like Bob Hope and Johnny Carson. The jokes were to the effect that Welch was desireable and she was busty. Sometimes they intimated that she wasn’t very bright. I was surprised later when I watched her films to realize that while she was indeed very beautiful, you could also tell that she actually was a perfectly intelligent person. It’s just that her characters often weren’t. Also a sizeable ratio of her output happened to be in fairly campy fare: things like science fiction B movies, exploitation films, and spaghetti westerns. And she’s not the world’s greatest thespian. But she doesn’t seem at all dumb.

Welch spent about a decade (1966-76) as a star properly speaking, with appearances in numerous succesful or otherwise notable films. A bit part in the Elvis movie Roustabout (1964) led to a starring part in the beach party movie A Swingin’ Summer (1965) with Lori Williams. In 1966 there were the two sci fi classics Fantastic Voyage and One Million Years B.C. There were spicy foreign films or movies with foreign settings like Sex Quartet (1966), The Oldest Profession (1967), Fathom (1967, with Tony Franciosa), and The Biggest Bundle of Them All (1968, with Robert Wagner). She had cameos in the comedies Bedazzled (1967 with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) and The Magic Christian (1969, with Peters Sellers and Ringo Starr). There were westerns like Bandolero! (1968, with Jimmy Stewart and Dean Martin), 100 Rifles (1969 with Burt Reynolds) and Hannie Caulder (1971, in which she starred). There were crime capers like Lady in Cement (1968, with Frank Sinatra), Flareup (1969), and Sin a.k.a The Beloved (1970). She was in buddy comedies like Fuzz (1972, with Burt Reynolds) and Mother Juggs and Speed (1976, with Bill Cosby and Harvey Keitel). There were interesting anomalies like Kansas City Bomber (1972, a drama about the roller derby), the murder mystery The Last of Sheila (1973, which we wrote about here), and the Merchant-Ivory screen version of The Wild Party (1975) with James Coco. And historical costume dramas like Bluebeard (1972, with Richard Burton), The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), and The Prince and The Pauper (1977). Her last starring film of the period of her original fame was the French action comedy L’Animal (1977), with Jean-Paul Belondo. During these years she also starred in three TV variety specials Raquel! (1970), Really Raquel (1974), and From Raquel with Love (1980).

The timing of Welch’s quick drop seems significant to me. Yes, she was now 37 years old. But perhaps more importantly, the universe now had Charlie’s Angels. It was Farrah Fawcett on all the posters now, instead of Welch. In 1979, Welch posed for Playboy. In 1981 she replaced Lauren Bacall in Woman of the Year on Broadway. In 1982 she was slated to star opposite Nick Nolte in the movie version of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, but was replaced by Debra Winger when she wouldn’t agree to early morning rehearsals after that, it was mostly made-for-tv movies, the occasional cameo, and public appearances in places like Las Vegas.

But soft! We have saved the best for last!

the film that put Mae West back on the big screen

I’m certain I would have done a post on Raquel Welch eventually anyway, but this one has been long brewing for the very special reason that the notorious Myra Breckenridge (1970) is the one Mae West film I have not yet written about. Yet the most amazing thing about this movie is that Mae’s presence (at age 77) is not the most unique thing about this movie.

Based on Gore Vidal’s 1968 novel, Myra Breckenridge was produced and released by 20th Century Fox at a time when they were turning out all sorts of risky and crazy films, betting that they would speak to audiences during those tumultuous times. In addition to many of Welch’s films mentioned above, Fox produced Valley of the Dolls (1967), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), Che! (1969), Justine (1969), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, hip rather than risky but it speaks to the studio’s “voice”), M*A*S*H (1970), Little Murders (1971), and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1972), and that’s just some of it. Michael Sarne, director of Myra Breckenridge, had previsiously directed the critically acclaimed Joanna (1968) also a Fox Film. So this is the environment. But as often happened during this period in film history, some movies that aspired to garner widespread attention for being outrageous…went too far.

The plot is that a young man named Myron (played by movie critic Rex Reed) has a sex change operation…and becomes Myra (Raquel Welch). Now that such transitions are common, the concept becomes even more hilarious than it was at the time. Rex Reed as woman does not equal Raquel Welch. There is no surgeon who is that much of a genius. At any rate, that’s what happens. She now passes herself off as her own widow, and knocks on the door of her “late husband’s” uncle, the head of a Hollywood acting school, played by John Huston. Huston is understandably turned on by Raquel Welch (who happens to be his own nephew/niece) but somewhat suspicious when she demands an inheritance consisting of either a large sum of money or a 50% share of the school. Huston offers her a consolation prize of letting her TEACH at the school, while he proceeds to have her investigated. That seems safe enough. But what he doesn’t know is that Myra has a diabolical plan much greater than taking over the school. She aspires no less than to FEMINIZE society through the movie industry (which has harmed the world through its hyper-masculine values, inspiring violence and war — an incontravertible thesis, if you ask me). Myra’s curriculum to her classes sells the message, and in the film’s most notorious scenes she breaks up a very gender normative couple (Roger Herren and Farrah Fawcett) by raping the young man with a dildo, and seducing the young woman. Lesbian sex is a common enough spectacle nowadays (though we don’t often match the heights of a Raquel Welch in  bed with a Farrah Fawcett), though it was considered quite racy in 1970. But the male rape scene is not okay, to put it mildly, even in a satire. It’s sort of cheerfully done and it makes ya squirm, and if there’s any one cause of this film’s failure at the box office it has to be word of mouth about this scene.

The scene

And yet the film is not without pleasures, if much tamer ones. As it is about Hollywood, there is lots of campy stunt casting of familiar faces from the Hollywood studio area, not just John Huston and Mae West, but also John Carradine, Andy Devine, Grady Sutton, and B.S. Pully. There were also a ton of then very familiar contemporary character actors: Roger C. Carmel (Harry Mudd from Star Trek and a regular on The Mothers-in-Law), Jim Backus. George Furth, Kathleen Freeman, Buck Kartalian and Monte Landis.  African American star Calvin Lockhart (who’d also been in Joanna) gets a turn the ensemble. And some future famous people were cast in smaller roles, now recognizable to us: Farrah herself, as we mentioned, but also Tom Selleck, Toni Basil, and Dan Hedaya. 

Because the movie is ABOUT Hollywood aesthetics, there are lots of great old film clips, and still images and design elements that evoke classic Hollywood, and overall I think the film is a kind of camp precursor to the nostalgia trend I wrote about in this essay. So it has its virtues. But it was too far out for ticket buyers. Which was doubly unfortunate since Sarne went WAY over budget. In the manner of Charlie Chaplin (who could afford to do so) he made the cast sit around for hours while he waited for inspiration to strike. And he famously spent several days shooting a sequence that only wound up in the film for a few seconds. Myra Breckenridge effectively ended his career as a movie director.

As for Mae, she plays a talent agent  with an entire stable of male lovers. She even gets musical numbers in the film. It is, in so many ways, jaw-dropping.