Director: Eric Drath
Featuring: Renee Richards, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe, Bud Collins, Neil Amdur, and more
The son of two doctors, Richard Raskind was a charismatic scholar-athlete and skirt-chaser at Yale who went on to graduate from medical school and continue his training as an ophthalmologist in the Navy. Raskind was also, however, an inveterate cross-dresser who for more than two decades grappled with confusion over issues of sexual identity. Later in life — after a five-year marriage and even the birth of a son — 41-year-old Raskind completed a sex change operation that he’d contemplated for years. Taking up the name Renee Richards and moving to California as part of the transformation, he — now she — went on to enter and win a handful of circuit-level tennis matches, and eventually enter into a protracted legal battle to win the right to play in the 1977 U.S. Open. Director Eric Drath’s Renee, which recently debuted at the Los Angeles Film Festival, tells the story of this transsexual trailblazer, shining a spotlight — whatever ones thinks of its subject — on a remarkable reservoir of personal perseverance.
With its plethora of tennis world interviewees — inclusive of Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova (whom Richards would eventually go on to coach, after her retirement), sportscaster Bud Collins and New York Times sports editor Neil Amdur — as well as its well-ordered archival material, Renee offers forth a solid look at a world in flux and change, as filtered through the prism of one sport. Interviews with Richards and an array of her colleagues, friends and family also give the movie a certain weight and insight on a complementary personal level.
Unfortunately, Drath fails to consistently ask the sort of tough questions that would really get inside the head and heart of his protagonist, and therefore amount to something special, and more searingly memorable. The movie is no slobbering hagiography, but apart from the requisite biographical strands it’s mainly concerned with Richards’ push to play professional women’s tennis, and the push-back from that sport’s governing body, the United States Tennis Association. After refusing to take the so-called Barbody test (a chromosome-based measuring standard which would have disqualified her), Richards sued, and the film builds toward this interesting and in some ways landmark legal case.
Left just a bit on the outside looking in, then, are tantalizing clues and psychological markers as to perhaps some of the influences on Richards’ thinking, from adolescence on through adulthood — an early comment from Richards that hers was “a family of such mix-ups that no sane person could come into it and survive,” and a frustratingly brief amount of material from Richards’ sister, who (still) disapproves of the operation and uses male pronouns to refer to Richards. Richards’ adult son, Nicholas, also makes a fairly late entry into the proceedings. A kind of chronically unemployed screw-up living by the seats of his pants in New York City (he gets evicted from his apartment late in the film), he has a fascinating relationship with his father-turned-mother, and a deeper exploration and earlier introduction of this would give the movie a strong second narrative pillar.
As is, Renee is gripping, but chiefly just because of its subject matter, and the somewhat discombobulating sight of Richards, who is a weird blend of the skeletal and ethereal. Renee also benefits from its streamlined brevity; at a crisp, cool 78 minutes, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome. Still, one has to wonder about the subconscious motivations of a self-described “private person” who has a sex change, leaves behind a family and moves across the country, but then enters a high-profile tennis tournament knowing that any success will likely hoist them into the public arena. Richards’ hard-knock story and life is an amazing one, still laced with pockets of untapped mystery and intrigue.
Written by: Brent Simon