Second Serve (1986) starring Vanessa Redgrave, Martin Balsam, William Russ, Alice Krige, Kerrie Keane, Richard Venture, Reni Santoni, Louise Fletcher, Jeff Corey, Alan Feinstein directed by Anthony Page Movie Review

Second Serve (1986)   3/53/53/53/53/5

Vanessa Redgrave in Second Serve (1986)

A Court Case

In 1964 Richard Radley was a keen tennis player and to most a typical man with a girlfriend, Gwen (Alice Krige). What none of his friends knew was that in secret Richard would dress up as a woman and go out in public. It wasn't some sort of fetish but real gender confusion with Richard feeling like there was a woman inside him trying to get out and in realising this he speaks to his psychiatrist mother about it. After some time and naval service he decides that he needed to do something about it and starts getting treatment but baulks before having sex reassignment surgery and returns to his life as a man and gets married. But after 5 years of marriage he not only gets a divorce but goes through the treatment and this time having the surgery and becoming Renée Richards whilst also working as a doctor. But when Renée applies to play in the 1976 US Open she finds her application denied because of her refusal to take the Barr body test leading to a public court case.

I am too young to remember what was going on in the world in 1976 and so knew nothing of Renée Richards or the outcry over her application to try and play tennis. But in truth you don't need to know about Renée Richards to watch "Second Serve" as it plays out in such a way that it is less about the person and more about what that person went through and does an okay job of walking us through it.

Louise Fletcher in Second Serve (1986)

But before I get to that I have to mention the casting of Vanessa Redgrave as Renée Richards. Now some may say this is a cheat as why cast a woman in the story of a man who became a woman, why not keep it authentic and go for a man playing a woman but the end result is what matters and the end result to me works. In the opening scenes which introduce us to Richard Radley you do a double take because Vanessa Redgrave is barely recognizable as a man with the 5 o'clock shadow and sensible hair.

Now I mentioned it does an okay job of walking us through the story of a woman born in a man's body and what I mean is that it has a tendency of over simplifying things. In the scene where Richard speaks to his mother we have a suggestion that his mother dressing him up in dresses as a child might have been influential but never really digs into this or Richard's relationship with his mother both before and after this chat. It is the same when Richard goes to speak to his own psychiatrist as generic things are mentioned such as it is not a biological condition but one of the brain which can be controlled, yet it never digs into it, just giving us the facts and opinions which most of us are aware of.

Of course after detailing Richard's early life and his struggles with who he is it does get to the public battle when having become Renée she tries to play professional tennis but gets denied. Now I won't go into the details of this but like with the rest of the movie it keeps things simple but interesting.

What this all boils down to is that "Second Serve" is an interesting movie and one which is hard to believe is a made for TV movie as it is much better than what you expect from the genre. But whilst it features a great performance from Vanessa Redgrave it does suffer from only skimming the surfaces of the difficulties faced by a man becoming a woman.