Catching Up With Raquel Welch
By Mark Peikert
Before we even have the chance to gather our courage and ask film legend Raquel Welch about the infamous movie flop Myra Breckinridge—which found the bombshell playing a transgender woman in the adaptation of Gore Vidal’s novel, opposite Mae West and Rex Reed—she brings it up herself. “The only good thing about that was the clothes,” she says with a laugh. A screen icon for five decades now, Welch is getting the recognition she deserves Feb. 10–14, when Film Society of Lincoln Center hosts Cinematic Goddess: American Sex Symbol, The Films of Raquel Welch.
Those costumes in Myra were amazing, all the old movie star-inspired looks
It was just such fun, that part of it.
The actual movie, not so much fun?
The making of the movie was fun, in a kind of a way. But I didn’t feel that the script was leading anywhere. It didn’t really have a narrative. It was just impressions, a transgender fantasy or something. And it wasn’t like the book, where you kind of understood that there was a female side to this personality and therefore when they had the operation and Myron became Myra, there was another side to her that was all the time speaking to her and arguing. There was all of that. We tried to allude to that in one scene, I think, but it didn’t really come off because the book wasn’t utilized to its full potential. Not to be negative about it [laughs], I just thought the book was so extraordinary. I was laughing out loud. And it also had the whole duality of the female and the male. They had other sides to them and I thought that was very interesting. And I didn’t think that the way [director and screenwriter Michael Sarne] told his story and the way he developed his premise was clever and witty and entertaining. I felt like the movie looked really interesting but never really lifted off. There were a lot of [film critic] Parker Tyler speeches that Myra got to say, and those were fun, but they came out of nowhere.
Will this be the first time you’ve seen the film in a while?
There was a screening in L.A., and Gore came and even Michael Sarne came, and I think Theadora [van Runkle, the costume designer] came. Mae was already gone, so she couldn’t come. Not that I think she would have. I don’t think she was very happy on that set. You know that was her first color film? I did a lot of research about her before I met her at her home at The Ravenswood before filming.
Did she have her musclemen present?
No. But a lot of white furniture. A lot of 25-watt pink bulbs around. You could barely see! She was something…
We’re excited about the retrospective, so we can’t even imagine how excited you must be!
You know what makes me really excited? Simon Doonan! [Doonan hosts a Q&A with Welch prior to Myra Breckinridge’s Feb. 10 screening.] Can you stand it! I love him, and he’s so fun and the look of the movie and the clothes and all of that. At least there we kind of got the joke, because it was impossible to miss the way people were dressed.
Are you happy with the selection of films?
I am, I think they’re pretty good. I think there’s a variety there, which is what I was hoping for. And we managed to miss the clunkers for the most part! I mean, One Million Years B.C. is One Million Years B.C., what do you want? But I don’t put it down because that thing still plays, it’s crazy! Who am I to argue with that? It gave me my break, really, and then it was up to me to sort it all out and find my way. I did my best. I think I finally managed most significantly with The Three Musketeers [screening Feb. 11 & 13] and Woman of the Year [on Broadway].
Was there anything that didn’t make it that you wish had?
I think we got most of it. I think they got a nice mix and all the broad strokes. And the action movies! I wanted them to be sure to have enough action movies because I think I was a break from the soft, blonde Marilyn Monroe type, and I did a lot of roles that would normally be played by a young man. So those kinds of things were fun for me because of course I grew up in a different generation. I loved Marilyn Monroe and was fascinated by her, but I knew in my heart that that wasn’t me and never would be. I felt like I like to be physically active and I want to be proactive in my life, too. I don’t want someone to tell me what to do. And it also is probably why I got a career out of One Million Years B.C. I’m a strong woman.
I’ll say! You survived Myra Breckinridge and Mae West!
[Laughs] I’m so very glad I made it because I think it means that someday, someone somewhere will have the cajones to come along and really do it the way Gore intended it. And make it the funny erudite movie it really should be. Because this stinker… If you had a contemporary version of Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon writing the stuff between Myra and Myron the way Hepburn and Tracy talked, then it would be a hoot! Where’s the great dialogue? I channeled Rosalind Russell for most of it. Who talked more than Roz Russell? His Girl Friday? Never shut up. And so articulate! But they do it like a comic strip now, so anyone can follow it. Fine, I guess, but I really like people having fun dialogue back and forth. That part of moviemaking seems to be gone. Now it’s all visuals.
Well, we can’t wait to see some serious Hollywood glamour.
I think it’s gonna be fun! And it’s all Fashion Week right across the center there. And I’m looking forward to it. And Simon Doonan for Myra Breckinridge and Dick Cavett [hosting a Q&A with Welch prior to the Feb. 11 screening of The Three Musketeers]! And the last time I saw Dick, he was interviewing me the day after the premiere of Myra in New York City and guess who I sat opposite with, who was his other guest at the time? Janis Joplin! Yes, honestly and truly. And do you know, I was so upset for one reason when I was looking at her. I was thinking, ‘I’m such a big fan, I’m sure she doesn’t know I had been to three of her concerts.’ And then I didn’t say anything! I was so upset afterward, but she was looking at me like I was from the moon! I reran it the other day. You can look at it on YouTube. It’s like the two opposite women on the planet!