The impossibly beautiful actress and icon Raquel Welch died Wednesday at age 82. Most news outlets will probably identify her as a sex symbol. Not me. She was so much more than that. Oh, she definitely was a sex symbol. In fact, she was part of my holy trinity of sex symbols, that also includes Angie Dickinson and Pam Grier. But let’s not forget Welch starred in some exceptional movies during the 60s and 70s — you know, when movies were still exceptional.
Born on Sept. 5, 1940, Welch accomplished so much more than most “sex symbols.” She wasn’t only a movie star; she was an international movie star. She was a Broadway star, which is about as respectable as the acting profession gets. She was an accomplished singer who performed a one-woman show in Las Vegas. She also won a Golden Globe for her amazing mix of sexy, feisty, and funny in Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers (1974).
In her later years, Welch added to her already impressive resume as a successful entrepreneur with a series of exercise videos and line of wigs.
For a sex symbol, Welch was also rather old-fashioned. She understood the power of her sexuality along with the power of imagination. She would never appear nude, not even for her 1979 Playboy spread. She didn’t have to. Sex came off of her in waves of heat only a handful of icons have replicated.
Best of all, Welch was serious about her show business career but not self-serious, not a prig like we see in the constipated entertainment world today, where a shot of cleavage is considered an act of rape by the problematic male gaze. Welch always gave the customers what they wanted. She loved to entertain and understood that sex and sex appeal, and sexual tension are all part of the fun, part of the joy of art. I can’t imagine what she thought of today’s bevy of uptight female neurotics.
But back to the films…
Welch’s real legacy are a number of movies that have only improved with age.
Fantastic Voyage (1966)
Welch plays one of a handful of scientists who are miniaturized to enter the bloodstream of a dying man. Of course, Welch is there for cheesecake value, which she more than fulfills, but she holds her own, and it’s still an exciting and imaginative sci-fi/Cold War thriller.
This is the first of Raquel’s three timeless Westerns. Get a load of this cast: Jimmy Stewart, Dean Martin, George Kennedy, Will Geer, Denver Pyle, Perry Lopez and Harry Carey Jr. Dean Martin’s no-good outlaw takes Welch hostage as they try to outrun a posse.
This is a tough, underrated, and exciting Western.
100 Rifles (1969)
Welch’s second classic Western co-stars NFL legend Jim Brown and future superstar Burt Reynolds. Great action scenes, great stars, a couple of terrific love scenes, Reynolds’ charm, Brown’s stoic machismo, and Welch’s va va voom make this as entertaining as movies come.
Hannie Caulder (1971)
By this time, Welch was not only a full-fledged movie star but also an accomplished actress. The movie opens with the murder of Hannie’s (Welch) husband and her gang rape at the hands of three pigs, memorably played by Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and Strother Martin. Hannie wants revenge, and thanks to Rober Culp’s philosophical gunfighter and Christoper Lee’s civilized gunsmith, she will have it.
Not just Welch’s best movie but one of the best Westerns of that era.
Kansas City Bomber (1972)
Most of the gritty and detailed cinematic character studies from this era were of men, which makes this entry a rarity. Kansas City Bomber was sold as a rock ‘em-sock ‘em exploitation film — The Hotterst Thing on Wheels! — but it’s so much more. Welch plays K.C. Carr, a single mother and roller derby queen who takes us on a tour of this then-popular and rather tawdry subculture. This isn’t Slap Shot or The Bad News Bears. Bomber is much closer in spirit to Requiem for a Heavyweight, North Dallas Forty, and The Wrestler. Welch is simply outstanding as an isolated woman with few options who’s kind of trapped in this world but also attracted to it.
Why this isn’t on Bluray is a crime.
The Three Musketeers (1973)
Welch’s most magnificent Movie Star Turn, won her a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Comedy or Musical. Welch is sexy, funny, tough, charming, conniving, clutzy, and delightful from A to Z — and “Z” ends with The Four Musketeers (1974), which was shot at the same time.
A perfect crowd-pleaser. At six years old, I saw this at the drive-in. It was love at first sight for Raquel and me, a love that will never die.
Also recommended: Mother Jugs & Speed (1976), The Last of Sheila (1973), Lady in Cement (1968), Bedazzled (1967), and One Million Years B.C. (1965).
As a movie star and pop culture icon, Welch was perfection. She came to entertain, to give us bang for our buck. It was never about her. It was about pleasing the customers. That generosity and show business spirit is all but dead today, which is why the entertainment business is all but dead and despised.
Mister, we could use a star like Raquel Welch today…
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