Buddy and his parents momentarily escape from Ulster’s Troubles in the late 1960s by going to a movie theater to see One Million Years B.C. Early on, a shot of a young, buxom actress in skimpy prehistoric garb fills the screen.]
Ma [played by Caitríona Balfe]: “No wonder you brought us to this.”
Pa [played by Jamie Dornan]: “It's educational for the boys.”
Ma: “Aye. Raquel Welch is hell bent on education.”—Belfast (2021), written and directed by Kenneth Branagh
When I saw Belfast several weeks ago, I guffawed during this scene. Someone else who did, I have good reason to think, provided the “education” alluded to here: Raquel Welch.
When Ms. Welch heard that actor-hyphenate Kenneth Branagh had loved the film that catapulted her to stardom when he was growing up, the Sixties bombshell sent him a glossy signed, "To the boy from Belfast, from the girl in the fur bikini," according to Branagh’s commentary for the DVD of his Oscar-winning movie.
(BTW, the management of this blog decided it was best not to reproduce the image of the actress in that particular garb with this post. We cannot be responsible for baby-boomer males experiencing cardiac arrest at this flashback to their impressionable youth.)
Time is “indifferent in a week/To a beautiful physique,” the poet W. H. Auden observed somberly.
Still, it came as something of a shock when I heard that Ms. Welch had died this week at age 82. Illness, decline, and death are not supposed to happen to film legends whose natural good looks are already magnified to fill the big screen.
Chances are, the desired career path of many Hollywood starlets is to begin as a sex symbol before transitioning to more challenging dramatic fare, as Sophia Loren, Ann-Margret and Jessica Lange did. Ms. Welch did not travel all the way on that trajectory, though her time in the industry was substantial.
You will not find an argument here that Ms. Welch was an unappreciated or even underestimated acting talent. But she achieved something as remarkable in its way as critical acclaim would have been: success on her terms, not those of filmdom’s male power brokers.
For one thing, she risked being labeled "difficult" by standing up for her right, beginning with her adamant refusal to perform nude onscreen, despite intense pressure to do so.
According to Anita Gates’ obituary of the actress in The New York Times, even art-house darlings Ismail Merchant and James Ivory resorted to that tactic while making The Wild Party. Ivory had no trouble bad-mouthing her in later years for what he depicted as unprofessional behavior on the set, but he had surely squandered much of the respect she might have given him by pressing her for intimate scenes.
She also dared to take on a major studio in court—and won.
After being fired from Cannery Row in 1982, she braved MGM’s characterization of her as an aging star out to score a big payday, with her attorneys convincing the jury that the studio had only fired her after their original choice for her role, Debra Winger, became available.
Second, she stretched her talents whenever she had the opportunity. Most notably, she filled in very capably for Lauren Bacall in the Broadway musical adaptation of Woman of the Year, by many accounts winning over theatergoers with her own take on the role.
Finally, she had an irreverent, even self-deprecating sense of humor. That not only enabled her to survive the vicissitudes of an exploitative industry, but led her towards roles where the right director could make use of her wry instincts. Many will fondly remember her featured roles in the likes of Tortilla Soup, Legally Blonde, and a hilarious Seinfeld episode where she appeared as herself.
“She was elegant, professional and glamorous beyond belief,” tweeted her Legally Blonde costar, Reese Witherspoon. “Simply stunning. May all her angels carry her home."
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