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Raquel Welch. Not a name that conjures up Oscar®-winning movies. Instead, a vision of a cavegirl in a bikini comes to mind. Or maybe a buff female fitness instructor with a video line for women with titles like Lose 10 Lbs. in 3 Weeks. Yet, there was a time when Raquel tried to break the Playboy playmate stereotype and prove herself as a dramatic actress. The year was 1972 and the film was Kansas City Bomber. An attempt to cash in on the then-popular roller derby craze, the film was also the actress's first bona fide attempt to create a real flesh and blood character - a struggling, single mom of two trying to make ends meet by plying her skating talent in the sports arena.
Prior to this, Welch was usually cast for her considerable physical attributes but rarely got a chance to test herself dramatically, even in genre films where she was the star such as the suspense thriller Flareup (1969), and Hannie Caulder (1971), a Western revenge drama. Kansas City Bomber was different; it was a personal project for the actress (she was one of the co-producers) and was made with the cooperation and assistance of the National Skating Derby. Welch even performed her own skating and selected stunts. Working with professional skater Paul Rupert, Raquel practiced five hours a day for three months, learning how to maneuver the banked oval tracks and how to take falls. Despite all of this, she broke her wrist in a fall during one scene, halting production for six weeks.
Adding authenticity to the production was the casting of real life roller derby stars (John Hall and Danny "Carrot Top" Reilly from the L. A. Thunderbirds) as extras and verbal references to other infamous players such as "Little" Richard Brown and Ronnie "Psycho" Rains. Real roller derby venues in Kansas City, Fresno, and Portland were also used for key scenes. In this regard, director Jerrold Freedman deserves kudos for his down and dirty approach which perfectly captures the economically depressed backwater towns, the cavernous, dimly lit sports arenas, and the rabid, blue collar fans who yell for blood on the sidelines. Equally effective is Helena Kallianiotes's intense performance as a bitter alcoholic teammate and rival. She won a Golden Globe nomination for her work here and inspired critic Roger Greenspun (of The New York Times) to say she gave "the film's one incredible performance...She goes to the dogs with an inappropriate passion rich enough to suggest an over-the-hill Sarah Bernhardt being traded to the minors by the Comedie Francaise."
What's most interesting about Kansas City Bomber, however, is its schizophrenic nature. It constantly veers back and forth between a warts-and-all documentary realism and a contrived Hollywood soap opera. Is it an exploitation picture or a serious drama? It tries to be both and the fault may lie in the screenplay (based on a master's thesis by UCLA film student Barry Sandler). Scenes with K.C. (Welch) at home with her disapproving mother and two children (one of whom is played by a very young Jodie Foster) or being manipulated by the team manager (Kevin McCarthy) fail to reveal why this single mom is driven to succeed at roller derby. It's never really resolved in the film but Welch's sincere performance helps to suspend disbelief.
Most critics noted this too when Kansas City Bomber opened theatrically. Kevin Thomas of The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that "Kansas City Bomber, a well-observed slice of contemporary Americana, marks Raquel Welch's coming of age as an actress and is a personal triumph for her after surviving more rotten movies than anyone would care to remember." And The Village Voice deemed the film "worth seeing if only because its central character marks a return to the kind of independent, self-aware professional woman that has practically disappeared from contemporary movies." Unfortunately, Kansas City Bomber didn't lead to better dramatic roles for Ms. Welch. Instead, she went in a different direction, displaying a rarely seen knack for self-satire (in 1973's The Last of Sheila, playing a Hollywood sex symbol) and comedy (Richard Lester's version of The Three Musketeers (1973) and its 1974 sequel). She temporarily abandoned her film career in 1982 after being replaced on the set of Cannery Row with Debra Winger. Since then, she has appeared occasionally in made-for-TV movies, and infomercials endorsing her own fitness products. In 1998, she resumed her movie career with the French film, Folle d'elle, and has since appeared in Tortilla Soup (2001) and Legally Blonde (2001) among others.
Producer: Martin Elfand, Arthur Gardner, Jules Levy
Director: Jerrold Freedman
Screenplay: Calvin Clements, Sr., Thomas Rickman, Barry Sandler
Cinematography: Fred J. Koenekamp
Film Editing: David Berlatsky
Art Direction: Joseph R. Jennings
Music: Don Ellis
Cast: Raquel Welch (Diane K.C. Carr), Kevin McCarthy (Burt Henry), Helena Kallianiotes (Jackie Burdette), Norman Alden (Horrible Hank Hopkins), Jeanne Cooper (Trainer Vivien), Jodie Foster (Rita).
by Jeff Stafford