One of the public pioneers for those whose miserable lives can only be relieved by changing sex is the subject of Eric Drath’s fascinating chronicle of how Dr. Richard Raskind’s mid-life crisis resulted in the birth of Dr. Renée Richards. Both were/are skilled ophthalmologists and tennis players; the former was an aggressive womanizer who—from a very early age—had no qualms about wearing his sister’s clothing before outfitting himself in adulthood; the latter became a champion on the court (ranking No. 22 at the end of 1977) and in the court (successfully preventing the United States Tennis Federation from using the swab technique to determine if the gifted medical practitioner was male: “Have any gynecologist in the world do an exam,” offers the lanky, shot-savvy woman in one of many candid comments).
With a delivery, demeanour and just the faintest resemblance to Quentin Crisp (cross-reference below), one of the film’s greatest achievements is to spark the identity/labelling discussion. Was/is Renée nothing more than the ultimate transvestite (and shameless publicity hound) willing to let her body be transformed by a regimen of estrogen treatments and penis removal in order to bed the men of her dreams without the gay moniker (she does admit to a few post-surgery romps but seems largely asexual lo these many years, sharing her incredible life with her constant companion, Arleen Larzelere), or is she truly a member of the fairer sex?
During his years of turmoil, Raskind went so far as to marry a Ford model and father a child (Nicky): surely that would send his alter ego packing! But no sooner had the bonding begun in earnest with “Daddy’s boy” than Renée re-emerged, abandoning family and friends in New York for California with the telltale appendage no longer in evidence to mock the femme so very fatale. The effect on Nicky (still referring to her as Dad—it is hard to imagine the confusion of a wee boy as he learns he has two moms), other family members (Raskind’s/Richard’s older sister sees the transformation as a mistake and desperately hangs on to the brother who has fled the familial coupe; Raskind’s wife is the sole major player conspicuously absent from the dozens of few-holds-barred interview segments) and friends (their level of loyalty and understanding most certainly kept Renée going through what must have been many, many dark periods).
Yet rather than rebuild a quiet, relatively anonymous existence in the land of golden dreams, Renée would settle for nothing less than a place in professional women’s tennis and prove once and for all to everyone (including herself) that the transition was complete.
With on-camera appearances by marvellously understanding Mary Carillo, generally supportive Billie Jean King, sorry-I-said-a-few-things (so true to form) John McEnroe and fellow pioneer (same challenge, different category) Martina Navratilova, Drath’s well-balanced, superbly crafted film is a must see for those struggling in their own skins and those around them who may be in for the surprise of their lives. Sadly, those surprises frequently lead to suicide rather than first acknowledging then getting on with repressed truths, no matter what they may be.
The inability to act sooner is at the heart of the anguish that necessarily follows taking action until the spectre of advancing time forces all manner of Renées to, finally, show their true colours. Those of us who have survived the unimaginable turmoil of the realization that who we thought we were was nothing but a societally convenient sham can only nod their heads in compassionate agreement as we witness Renée’s determination, real and shallow victories as well as losing by love both on and off the court.
How entirely apt to have a duet version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” fill the ear as the closing credits roll. JWR