Only ended up seeing two movies during this past week's NewFest -- "Renee" and "The Green" -- but both were high on my list for the LGBT film festival, so I'm not complaining.
Eric Drath's "Renee," the long-overdue first documentary to ever tackle the complex life story of Renee Richards -- who, if you don't know, was a Yale-educated, skirt-chasing eye surgeon before undergoing sex reassignment surgery in 1975 and then becoming a professional player on the women's tennis circuit (in her 40s!) -- is a mesmerizing treasure trove for fans of tennis' late-'70s-early '80s heyday. (Are you ready to see Renee playing at the La Jolla tournament where she was "outed," including an interview with the woman she crushed in the final? Are you up for some serious Caroline Stoll footage?! And are you prepared for doubles with Betty Ann Stuart -- aka Taylor Dent's mom?!) But even if you're just now learning about Richards -- whose 1977 New York Supreme Court case that granted her the right to compete as a woman at the U.S. Open was a landmark ruling in trans rights -- you'll be equally captivated by a story that 35 years later doesn't even seem like it could have really happened. (It almost has that "All in the Family" factor to it, like it could happen then but wouldn't fly now.) I grew up watching the 1977 U.S. Open live from Forest Hills -- my first Grand Slam, and what a Slam it was with Tracy Austin, Wendy Turnbull and Renee!-- but when I saw her 6-foot-2 frame playing new Wimbledon champ Virginia Wade up on the big screen, it was still jaw-dropping. I went with two non-fanatics and they both loved every second of it.
One of the chief criticisms I've read about "Renee" is that Drath, who interviews Richards off-camera in a number of lengthy scenes, doesn't ever press her hard enough to really get inside the head or heart of his subject. But I would argue that that is unfair given who his subject was. After years of feeling like a circus sideshow -- something she naively thought would never happen to her as she believed she could become a "woman," not a "transwoman" -- Richards indeed has lots of walls up around her, and can you blame her? In 2007, she was famously misquoted as saying she "regrets" having had the surgery -- something that quickly became a cautionary tale for all transgenders -- when in fact she said that she regretted that there had been no other alternative to surgery -- "better to be an intact man functioning with 100 percent capacity for everything than to be a transsexual woman who is an imperfect woman” -- "but there wasn’t,” and she'd likely committed suicide because the draw to become female was so great. But for all of her intelligence, accomplishments and solipsism, she's always been surprisingly anemic in self-awareness -- as evidenced by many of her actions, like entering an amateur tennis tournament thinking she could pass as a "California housewife"(!) -- so it's from finally hearing from those closest to her and really seeing how it all played out with our own eyes -- something does Drath brilliantly with interviews with friends, family and colleagues from the world of medicine and tennis (John McEnroe, Virginia Wade, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King) plus loads of extremely rare footage of her days in the limelight -- that we are finally able to begin to know the real Renee, whose appearances on the "Dean Martin Celebrity Roast" and countless television interviews belie her claims of being such a "private" person. (First there was Dick and Renee, now there is Private Renee and Exhibitionist Renee.)
While she comes across as thoughtful and sympathetic at times -- you really feel for her when you see the enormous guilt she carries about her druggy, deadbeat son, who seems to blame his dad for his problems one minute, then seems to have all the compassion in the world for what Dad must have gone through the next -- it's a bit jarring when you realize everything Renee fought for -- driven by the arrogant, alpha-male personality (which is brought up again and again by friends and colleagues) that still resided somewhere deep inside her -- was for Renee, a former white male, who was not used to being told she couldn't do something, rather than for a greater good. Perhaps that's not as uncommon of trailblazers as I think, and she's since been quoted as saying that it was all about her, but that if others wanted to come along for the ride, then fine. So it's not surprising that Renee has never really been a part of the subsequent transgender movement, not only because she never set out to be an activist, but because her views have changed 180 degrees since her days on the circuit, and she now disagrees with the International Olympic Committee that transgender athletes should be allowed to compete. This hypocrisy has not gone unnoticed, although her precedent-setting case was always confounded by the fact that she was, as Ilie Nastase so perfectly put it, old enough to be the other players' mother, so she was never a true "threat" to dominate the sport. She recognizes now that if she'd had her surgery at age 20, she may very well have taken over, and she doesn't think THAT would be fair, hence her view about today's (non-middle-age) athletes. (For her part, Renee told People magazine that the thing she "regrets" is fighting for the right to play instead of just going back to medicine and having some semblance of a private life. She also says she would never accept an invitation to speak to transgender youth because "it would be presumptuous of me to try to advise people.")
I doubt "Renee" will get a widespread release, but if you can't wait until ESPN gets around to showing it (they were backers), it's available on Tribeca On-Demand HERE. Anyone with an interest in LGBT history owes it to him/herself to learn about Renee Richards, the unwitting Harvey Milk of transgender rights.
On Sunday we caught a packed screening of "The Green" -- or, as it was known around the lobby, "the Cheyenne Jackson movie." Jackson actually rides shotgun to fellow Broadway star Jason Butler Harner, who plays a school teacher accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a male student. Jackson plays his caterer partner whose loyalties are tested when details of his man's past come to light.
Both men -- as well as a charming supporting cast of Julia Ormond (as the lawyer) and Illeana Douglas (as Harner's hilarious coworker/friend) -- give great performances in this uncomfortable story that drips of homophobia. (Oh, Mark Blum -- aka Gary Glass from "Desperately Seeking Susan" -- is in it, too! I hadn't seen him since an episode of "Roseanne.") The ending was a bit melodramatic for me -- too many bows tied around everything when life is almost always a present where the wrapping doesn't line up around the edges -- and the film had a cheap tint to it that I found a bit distracting. But all in all, it's worth checking out -- and despite what I heard in the lobby, it wouldn't just be for the Cheyenne Jackson factor (but it doesn't hurt!). For more information, click HERE.