When it was announced that a new documentary simply called “Renée” about the life of Renée Richards would premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, I was surprised that it took so long for her remarkable story to make it to big screen since her autobiography “Second Serve” was made into a TV movie of the same name starring Vanessa Redgrave many years ago. Richards’s life on and off the tennis court both as a player and coach is well-known for those who’ve followed the sport for a long time but could perhaps serve as an inspiration for a younger generation.
Born Richard Raskin in 1934, Raskin, a fine tennis player, became a successful opthamologist, was married and had a son. But after the age of 40, Raskin underwent successful gender reassignment surgery and later changed her name to Renée Richards. In 1977, Richards sued the USTA and won the right to play as a women at the U.S. Open. Richards reached a career high ranking of No. 20 in the world as a player and later in the 1980’s coached Martina Navratilova for several years.
Filmmaker Eric Drath, whose last film “Assault in the Ring” won the 2009 Emmy for Outstanding Sports Documentary, sparked by a personal connection to Richards, talked to me about what he learned during the course of making the film that includes interviews with Navratilova along with Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors, Mary Carillo with many more and what might surprise audiences after seeing it.
ATN: What was your initial interest in her story?
ED: Well, first of all, my sister actually went to Dr. Richard Raskin when she was younger so I always knew the story. And I just thought it was fascinating and coming off the heels of my last film which was a boxing film, I didn’t know if my next project would be a sports film but I found myself asking “Whatever happened to Renée?” And I thought it would be great to get all the answers because they were always so many questions and not so many answers about why she went through the changes she did, why was she allowed to play at the U.S. Open and what kind of life did she have afterwards and I think those questions are answered in the film.
ATN: How long did it take you to make the film once you made the initial contact with her?
ED: Just about two years from start to finish.
ATN: Does Renée view herself as a pioneer either for LGBT rights or sports rights?
ED: Well it’s interesting because when I first went out to meet her I figured she would be this outspoken leader of LGBT rights and of sports rights but really I think her actions were more the leader or pioneer than her spoken language or how much she speaks about it. There are people who are doers and those who are talkers and though she’s never been an outspoken leader for LGBT rights, it was her actions and what she did for LGBT rights that is unquestionably one of the most important aspects of her life, even though she doesn’t see it that way.
ATN: You have footage of her playing at the U.S. Open as a woman in the film. Is that first time that’s ever been seen outside of those who were actually at the event back in 1977?
ED: Yes and the footage is just great.
ATN: Has Renée seen the film?
ATN: Is that just a personal choice of hers or is she just too busy?
ED: No, it’s a personal choice of hers, but she has been incredible.
ATN: Is there one thing that audiences who may have never heard of Renée or just know a little about her story might be surprised about after viewing the film?
ED: I think they’ll be surprised by some her views now on being allowed to play at the U.S. Open and I don’t want to give it all away but really this is a story about an incredible person. Tennis definitely plays a big part in it because athletes are heroes for many people and sports are a great environment to tell exhilarating and courageous stories but yet when you boil it down this is a story about a person wanting to be accepted for who they are and who they believe they are.
Renée will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this week and will screen several times throughout the event. Drath is also planning to screen the film at many more festivals this summer before it airs on ESPN later this fall.
For more information about the screening at Tribeca, click here.