Saturday, December 01, 2012

The Laughs and Loves of Fathom

In every boy's life, I suppose, there is a handful of starlets from stage and screen who serve as his mental sex objects, the ones about whom he daydreams and fantasizes.

It is part of adolescence.

One of mine — and I am reasonably sure most of the men of my generation would agree — was Raquel Welch. (The knowledge that she is now in her 70s — and even her daughter has ceased to be regarded as a sex symbol — is painful to admit. Time truly does march on.)

When I was no more than 7 or 8, I remember my friends at school passing around pictures of Raquel that they had swiped from their fathers or older brothers. They were usually publicity photos from her movies that had been clipped from newspapers or magazines, and Raquel was usually dressed provocatively, but she was never photographed wearing anything more revealing than could have been seen on any beach or city street at the time — she just filled it out better than most.

I was familiar with her face — and the rest of her — long before I ever saw her in a movie. I don't remember how old I was when I first heard her name or saw her photograph. It seems like I always knew who she was.

But I will always remember which of Raquel's movies was my first and when I saw it.

It wasn't "Fantastic Voyage" or even "One Million Years B.C.," which are the movies most people probably think of when they think of Raquel Welch.

But the first Raquel Welch movie I saw was "Fathom," which premiered 45 years ago today. I didn't see it until about five or six years after it left the theaters. I was spending the night at my best friend's house one Friday night, and we talked his mother into allowing us to stay up and watch the late movie — which, that night, happened to be "Fathom."

The plot was flimsier than the bikinis in which the (supposedly) skydiving Raquel pranced around for much of the movie.

To put things in context, this was at a time when James Bond made spy movies that were always hot commodities, and I guess I felt that "Fathom" was part imitation and part parody of the films of that day.

When I first saw "Fathom," I had not yet seen a James Bond movie — but still I recognized many references to the genre that I knew were inspired by 007 — so pervasive was Bond's influence on the culture at that time.

Fathom was recruited to retrieve an atomic device from some Chinese operatives (of whom Tony Franciosa was one — and, no, I am not going to tell you how a clearly Caucasian man like Franciosa wound up working for the Chinese. You'll just have to watch the movie). The full–time dental assistant and part–time sky diver was to parachute into the property occupied by the operatives. It was the perfect cover, Fathom was told. She was a sky diver who drifted innocently off course, and nothing would happen to her because she was a pretty girl.

The dialogue was loaded with thinly veiled sexual references and a gag about the origin of Raquel's character's name. There were times when that movie seemed to be nothing more than a bunch of inside jokes, double entendres and tongue–in–cheek references.

It became a running joke — at least for a little while — for people in the movie to ask Raquel how she came to be known as Fathom. The first time she was asked about it, she explained that a fathom is six feet. "Papa was hoping for a tall son," she said. "Papa was disappointed."

The next time she was asked about it, she said it was an acronym formed by the first initials of six wealthy uncles.

"Papa wasn't taking any chances," she said, "unlike me."

Another time she was asked about her name, she said it was "short for Elizabeth." (The joke had about run its course by that time.)

Finally, she just said, "Please don't ask me how I got the name Fathom."

Needless to say, I suppose, the writers weren't nominated for an Oscar. But neither was anything else about "Fathom."

I can't say that I watch it every time it shows up on my TV listings — but I must confess that I do have roughly the same thought every time I see it in the listings. Call it a guilty pleasure.

I wonder what kind of role model Welch was in those days. I was, of course, but a boy, and I didn't recognize things that adults did.

I responded to the things that drove many adults — and still do.

She didn't possess acting skills that made her the clear choice to play complicated characters. As a matter of fact, the character she played in "Fathom" was pretty easy to figure out.

My reaction was the same as most young males', I suppose. Probably the same as most adult males, for that matter. I mean, men may admire intellect in women, and they may appreciate qualities that are more than skin deep.

But it's still the skin — and how it is packaged — that men notice. (The 1981 movie "Looker" had its weaknesses, but its basic premise — that men are vulnerable, however subliminally, to sexual, or at least tantalizing imagery — was spot on. It didn't really point to anything, however, that had not been pointed out by others, including "Fathom.")

Welch's character relied on her looks to get whatever she wanted and to take her wherever she wanted to go. What kind of role model was that?

Oh, yeah, about the same as many of today's role models.