I had the privilege of attending a Q&A session with Raquel Welch, moderated by Simon Doonan, on February 10, 2012 as part of a small festival of Welch’s films screened by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York from February 10-14. Welch is appearing at a few of the screenings for Q&A’s, but I attended the one before the 1970’s film, Myra Breckinridge, which costarred Mae West.
Now 71 years old, Welch still looks stunning (get me the name of her plastic surgeon, stat!), and she was articulate and delightfully funny.
She isn’t exactly proud of Myra Breckinridge, but she finds it easy to laugh about the experience now. Based on a book by Gore Vidal, the film is about Myron Breckinridge (played by Rex Reed), who gets a sex change operation in Europe and returns to the U.S. as Myra, played by Welch.
When Welch heard that Anne Bancroft had turned down the role, she tried to get it, telling producer Richard Zanuck, “I don’t know exactly what kind of actress you’re looking for in this role, but I was thinking if a guy was going to change his sex and wanted to be like a movie star-type of girl, don’t you think he might want to look like me?’”
Next thing she knew, she had the role without seeing a script, which was … well, a problem. When asked if she was able to have any fun while making the movie, she said, “Pretty much it was all fun, but it was sad fun because I really was worried about the script. I didn’t want to make a movie that didn’t make any sense. I thought we were going to make something kind of revolutionary.”
On John Huston, who was also in the cast, Welch said, “I loved to be with John because he was so brilliant, and he was funny…. I once went to him almost in tears and said, ‘John, did you see the latest draft?’ He said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, my darlin’, it’s a film, just a film.’ I thought, ‘If John Huston, the great auteur, is saying this to me, I have no hope in hell.’”
Her experience with director, Michael Sarne, was … interesting. “I did like Michael, and really he was a fun, sweet guy. But I did resent very much that he used to carry around this little box…. He used to say, ‘I’ve got this little box for you, Raquel!’ I said, ‘I’m not strapping on anything, Michael, okay?’”
Welch spoke about cast mate Mae West with both respect and humor, taking the opportunity to dish without restraint about the elder sex symbol. Prior to shooting, Welch asked to meet with West at her home. “As I was waiting, I noticed that all the furniture was white, of course, but I couldn’t see very well because I also noticed that there were only 25-watt pale pink bulbs. And I thought, ‘Poor Mae, I hope when I get this age…’ And, of course, now, I’m over 70, so it’s really not funny! I’m about ready to carry around my 25-watt bulbs, too! But I really was very honored to be meeting her because she really is a legend. They sort of shoot that word around – icon, legend, this and that, but she really was. She invented camp, didn’t she? I think. For the public, anyway. She brought it out of the closet.”
When West finally emerged for their first meeting, Welch was surprised. “I thought, ‘I wonder what she’s really going to be like in real life’ because everybody I’ve ever met in the movies before … well, they had their persona on camera but then there was another real side to them. But Mae didn’t have a real side. Now, I don’t mean to be unkind, but really! She came out, and she had a long peignoir on. And she had a very, very blonde wig on, lots of eyelashes. This was noon.”
This is when Welch got up and treated us to a flawless Mae West impression.
Then, she went on to talk about the experience of working with West:
“She refused to ever appear in the same frame of film with me. There were no two-shots…. She left after she did her things, and I had an off-camera person read me my lines, and then, I would pretend that she was there.”
“I had this beautiful, beautiful dress, and it was black, and it had a big white ruff around the neck…. Mae was going to wear all white with black trim, so this would be perfect … NOT. Apparently, Mae had a look, how I don’t know, but got wind of the fact that I was wearing this exquisite dress…. I went to the closet to get the dress, and it wasn’t there. I said, ‘Ruth, what happened to the dress?’ She said, ‘It’s been confiscated…. Mae does not want you to wear that dress. You can wear the red dress that you wore in the last scene….’”
How did Welch respond to this? “I’ll tell you what,” she said to the director, “I’m going to go home for lunch, and when the dress reappears, so will I.” And with that “punch line,” as she called it, she took her bow at Lincoln Center to cheers and a standing ovation.