We like to think that the idea of something going “viral” is a digital age invention, made possible by the insta-connect virtues of the Internet, but this phenomenon is really nothing new—the only thing that’s changed is that what once took weeks or months can now happen in a matter of minutes.
I mention this, because in 1965, a 25 year-old actress of Irish-Bolivian descent named Raquel Welch was working in the Canary Islands on her first starring role in a movie produced by Britain’s Hammer Films. During a break in filming, the movie’s still photographer, Pierre Luigi, asked her to pose for a photograph. She stood there for a few minutes in her absurd cavewoman doeskin bikini as he took a few shots. Neither of them ever suspected that with a few clicks of a button, she would become a huge star and One Million Years, B.C. would become one of Hammer’s all time biggest hits.
As soon as it was printed, the photo exploded around the world and everyone wanted to know about the tawny, voluptuous redhead it contained. Seen today, the photo hasn’t lost any of its power. Captured in the moment where the 1960s was shedding the last repressive vestiges of the '50s post war era, it was the perfect image to help define a new sexual attitude. There was nothing coy or innocent about Raquel’s pose. She stood there, waiting, looking out into the distance for something we couldn’t see - and she was more than ready for it, whatever it was. (There’s a reason it’s the poster on Andy Defresne’s wall in The Shawshank Redemption.)
In an instant she went from being a single mother of two to an internationally famous sex symbol, whose very name became cultural shorthand for the highest possible limits of female sensuality. Hollywood quickly capitalized on her fame and cast her in roles that ranged from the purely decorative (Bedazzled, The Magic Christian) to the implausible (Fantastic Voyage) to the controversial (100 Rifles - where she and Jim Brown made history performing one of the first onscreen interracial sex scenes).
They finally gave her another leading role in 1969’s Flareup, where she played an exotic dancer on the run from the psycho who murdered her best friend. Unfortunately for the people who paid to see it, they’d already seen everything they wanted in the film’s trailer, which took pains to show every second of her dancing in its 1:50 minute runtime.
For the rest of the film, audiences were expected to watch her emote, which posed a problem. Raquel catapulted to fame before she had mastered her craft. Her presence in front of the camera was palpable, undeniable and immediate, so this hadn’t really been a problem before, but when she was now asked to do more than represent female sexuality at its female sexuality-est, the cracks began to show.
This was exacerbated by Raquel’s understandable frustration with her new cultural role. As Hedy Lamarr said before her, it was easy to be a sex symbol - all you had to do was stand still and look stupid. Raquel wanted to be taken seriously and went about searching for the role she believed would do just that.
And she chose incredibly badly.
Reveling in the worst excesses of the period, 1970’s Myra Breckinridge was an artistic disaster and box office catastrophe and had the opposite effect Raquel wanted - ensuring that no one took her seriously as anything other than sexuality personified. The failure stung her and she acted out, developing a reputation for difficult diva-like behaviour (which actually started while Myra was still filming, when she became upset over the attention paid to Mae West, her ancient co-star, whose presence in the film help turned it from a campy failure into an outright horror show. There’s a reason why in their one scene together you never see the two actresses in the same shot).
That same year she appeared in another production that essentially nailed the problem she faced. Raquel! was a very expensive ($1,000,000) television special shot on film around the world, featuring John Wayne, Tom Jones and Bob Hope (who helps her perform an extremely strange version of The Beatles’ Rocky Racoon). As dated and ridiculous as much of it seems today, she’s quite good in it, but it highlights her essential dilemma - she reeked of “old” Hollywood in an era where that was anathema to the audiences who were rejecting the tried and true in favour of the interesting and innovative. In this clip of her performing with Jones, she’s as sexy as any human being has ever been, but cannot hide her total lack of anything even resembling the cool cherished during that period.
The '70s weren’t a complete write off for her. She proved surprisingly adept at light physical comedy in Richard Lester’s two Musketeer films - earning a Golden Globe for the first one - and effectively played a less successful version of herself in 1973’s The Last of Sheila, one of the best (and unjustly forgotten) mysteries that decade produced.
But by 1979 her film career was essentially over. Unable to find work anywhere else, she agreed to parody her image as an Amazonian space queen in a two-part Mork & Mindy episode called “Mork vs. the Necrotons”. Later on, Robin Williams would go on record and identify those two episodes as the moment the series imploded and slunk gracelessly towards inevitable cancelation.
Things got even worse when she did eventually nab a role in David S. Ward’s Steinbeck adaptation, Cannery Row, co-starring Nick Nolte. The producers used her name to secure the international funding needed to make the film, knowing full well that she was too old and completely miscast. Their hope was that she would make good on her difficult reputation, so they could fire her and recast the role with someone more appropriate once it was too late for the financers to take back their investment.
Five days into filming, they did exactly that, accusing her of holding up production by spending too much time in her trailer. They gave Debra Winger (15 years younger and hot off the success of Urban Cowboy) the role and finished the film. Welch sued and won, but it was too late. She spent the rest of the '80s appearing in TV movies, attempting to mimic Jane Fonda’s workout video success and flirting with a misguiding recording career.
But unlike other similar actresses blessed/cursed with the “sex symbol” label, Welch managed to cling to the edges of show business, popping her head up every now and then in order to remind everyone that there are apparently some people out there who simply do not age like the rest of us. Now in her 70s, her lamentable career has been mostly forgotten and/or forgiven, and she’s earned legend status as a show business survivor and glamour icon.
Were it not for that ending, the story of Raquel Welch could have been a cautionary tale, like Marilyn Monroe’s or Veronica Lake’s. Instead it’s a reminder that sometimes the secret to winning is just living long enough to make the past irrelevant. Raquel Welch has gone from sun-soaked goddess to public punch line to working actress to one of the best-known symbols of septuagenarian sex appeal—all thanks to a quick pic taken on the set of a caveman movie, 47 years ago.