Renée: Los Angeles Film Fest Review

An inconclusive yet nevertheless captivating look at the life of the world’s most famous transsexual athlete

Eric Drath’s documentary explores the life of transsexual tennis star Renée Richards before and after her 1975 gender reassignment surgery.

Renée, Eric Drath’s documentary about transsexual tennis star Renée Richards and her battle to play as a woman in the 1977 U.S. Open, is as fascinating as it is frustrating. Made for ESPN Films and shown in the current Los Angeles Film Fest prior to broadcast later this year, the film brings you up-to-date on a personality who once dominated headlines but has now largely faded from public view.

Drath tries to get to the bottom of two people, Richard Raskin, who was born in 1934 into a comfortable upper middle-class existence, and Renée — “French for ‘re-born,’ " she reminds — following Raskin’s gender reassignment surgery in 1975. It’s fair to say both remain an enigma.

Richards has written two autobiographies and seen two movies made about her life, the TV movie Second Servestarring Vanessa Redgrave and now this one. Yet she remains elusive. This enigmatic quality isn’t just about the schizophrenia of Dick and Renée but about the contractions and self-doubts each possessed.

Drath, who comes from a tennis-loving family, remembers as a boy Dr. Raskin, an eminent eye doctor who treated his sister, yet later appeared in a skirt at the U.S. Open, and wants to find out what happened. Good luck.

Observing Richards in an interview today and then in old footage and old interviews, one clearly observes a war going on within this person, not so much between male and female, as between what one friends calls the “private person,” who is extremely wary of all this attention, and a headstrong and arrogant individual who craves the limelight.

How else to explain a person who, having undergone gender reassignment, a name change and a switch of coasts from New York to California in order to live anonymously, suddenly wants to resume a tennis career. (Dick reached the final of the men's national 35-and-over tennis championships in 1972.) No one familiar with tennis, a friend tries to tell her, will fail to recognize Dick Raskind’s serve no matter how she dresses. Renée won’t listen. Then a local Southern California reporter does a little digging and her cover is blown.

One detects more than a little regret over the impact the sex transition had on others in Renée’s life although apparently none over the surgery itself. She can be a little evasive on-camera but is willing to express doubts now about the 1977 New York Supreme Court decision that allowed her to play in the U.S. Open without having to submit to sex test.

The film’s main focus is on the son Richards had during a brief marriage to a fashion model. A curt Nicholas Raskin does appear on camera briefly to answer questions. He still calls Renée his father and labels her decision to abandon her family for the sex reassignment “selfish.” Yet they seem to be close.

On the other hand, Renée talks about her son’s drug and alcohol problems although none is evident during his interviews. He is clearly a restless and disturbed man, who still resents the teasing he took as a schoolboy over his father’s sudden notoriety.

Nick’s mother evidently refused to cooperate as she is scarcely mentioned and never appears. There are other gaps. No mention is made of Richards’ Jewishness, which apparently made him feel like an outsider in the WASPY Ivy League schools he attended. He excelled as an athlete as well as a medical student, yet broke off his one serious romantic relationship.

He traveled to Europe as a woman and even arrived in Casablanca, Morocco, where the only surgeon in the world to specialize in gender reassignment operated a clinic. Then Dick chickened out. He returned to New York, married, fathered a son and only when he feared his own suicide did he have the operation.

One final gap has to do with Dick and Renée’s sex life. This comes up only once and with it comes the surprising admission to “sex escapades” with men and women but that Renée never found the love with men that Dick found with women. Say what? No follow-up questions to that?

In person today, the rangy and angular six-foot-two woman still struggles to suppress the alpha male that Dick once was. The practice of medicine — Richards by all accounts is an even better doctor than tennis player — continues to sustain her life and, she says, keep her sane. But when speaking of her son or the problems she caused for those close to her, a melancholy settles over her and the film.

One cannot know if more time devoted to interviewing Richards or the casting a wider net to bring in more voices belonging to friends, colleagues or experts in transsexualism might have brought more clarity or understanding to the story of Renée Richards. For in the end, this movie adds to the mystery rather than solves it.

Venue: Los Angeles Film Fest (ESPN Films)
Production companies: Live Star Entertainment in association with ESPN Films
Director: Eric Drath
Screenwriters: Aaron Cohen, Eric Drath
Producers: Aaron Cohen
Executive producers: Eric Drath, Barry Murphy
Directors of photography: James Fideler, Leo Lawrence
Music: Nathan Helpern
Supervising editor: Kate Hirson
Editors: Brian Hartough
No rating, 78 minutes