LAFF 2011 Review: RENEE

Allison Loring

by: Allison Loring
June 24th, 2011

Writer: Eric Drath
Eric Drath

Tennis player Renée Richards made headlines in 1977 as the first transgendered athlete to try and play at the professional level. The then-Richard Raskind had made a name for himself playing tennis in college and then for the U.S. Navy, but after years away from the courts, a player by the name of Renée Richards emerged on the amateur circuit with the same serve as Raskind, but a very different look. RENEE chronicles Richards’ struggle to play professional tennis and fulfill her life-long dream of competing in the U.S. Open while dealing with her personal trials along the way.

Richards had a strained upbringing, but always thrived on the tennis court, in the classroom and with the ladies. Richards graduated from Yale and began working as an eye surgeon in New York. Despite all this seeming success, Richards still wrestled with a dark secret – she wanted to be a woman. After a failed trip to Morocco to make the change permanent, Richards returned to New York, decided to get married and had a son, Nicholas.

Despite her attempts at living a "normal" life and being a good father, Richards was never a very good husband and she eventually reached a point where denying her true identity was no longer an option. Richards filed for divorce and made the decision to undergo reassignment surgery to permanently change herself from the man she had been born as into the woman she felt she was always meant to be. After her surgery, Richards changed her name to Renée (meaning "reborn") and moved to Los Angeles, leaving behind her career, family, friends, and Nicholas.

Even with all the drastic changes Richards had made to her life, her love of tennis never wavered. In California, Richards began playing once again and started entering tournaments. Despite warnings from friends, Richards was convinced she could play as Renée Richards and no one would trace her back to her former days as Richard Raskind. But because a “tennis stroke is like a finger print,” the world soon put two and two together and Richards became national news. The idea of allowing a woman (who was once a man) play women’s tennis raised many questions from not just the players, but the USTA as well. Refusing to be satisfied with playing at just the amateur level, Richards lobbied to be allowed to play in the U.S. Open, but the USTA issued a rule that would not allow any woman who refused to submit to a chromosome test to play in the tournament. With the support of fellow players such as Billie Jean King, Richards sued the USTA and won, paving the way for not just herself, but any future transgendered players.

Throughout all the various stages of her life, Richards’ personality never changed, with her love of tennis always being at the center of it. From playing to coaching to just being around the sport, no matter what stage she was in, tennis was always a part of it. Unfortunately, it was this unwavering love that also became the catalyst that exposed Richards’ true identity to the world.

Although an interesting subject, made even more so against the background of the professional sports world, RENEE never quite gets to the heart of the matter needed to truly engage in the film. Richards always seemed to be holding back in her interviews (with writer/director Eric Drath following suit) and this reservation kept the film from creating the impact it potentially could have achieved. Richards herself all but discredits the film by the end, reflecting back on her life and saying in hindsight, it may have been selfish of her cause the waves she did by trying to play professionally.

RENEE’s story is certainly an interesting one and was a notable moment in tennis’ history, but the film unfortunately throws many different threads at the audience, from Richards’ tennis career to the state of her relationship with Nicholas, and never quite ties them to anything concrete. With a weak narrative focusing more on the facts of Richards’ life rather than her true emotional journey, RENEE leaves you informed, but not necessarily moved.

Grade: C-

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