"Vanessa makes a very handsome man," said producer Linda Yellen. "She's fooled a lot of people on the set during tests."
In eight days' time, Vanessa Redgrave takes on what is probably her biggest challenge yet, a role more taxing than Lady Macbeth on stage, infinitely more difficult than Isadora on screen. She will star, both as a man and a woman, in Linda Yellen's Lorimar-CBS production of "Second Serve"--based on the compelling story of Dr. Renee Richards, the eye surgeon and tennis player who started out in life as Richard Raskind. The movie has no scheduled air date.
It is the kind of role for which some actresses spend their lives waiting; the kind which, if well done, becomes a career highlight. But Redgrave knows well enough the difficulties. When offered it, she said without hesitation, "I'm not at all sure a woman should play this role, but if one does, I think it should be me."
Yellen, the creative force behind two of television's most interesting projects--"Playing for Time" (which first united her with Redgrave) and "Prisoner Without a Name; Cell Without a Number," optioned "Second Serve" when it was first published a few years ago.
"I'd read several stories about people who'd undergone sex changes," she said the other afternoon. "But Renee's struck me as being unique. Usually, once a man has become a woman and all the legal papers have been attended to, they do not have another fight on their hands.
"But Renee did. Six months after living in seclusion at Newport Beach, she was spotted when she was playing tennis--for, as Richard Raskind, she had had a very recognizable serve. Then, when the Women's Tennis Assn. tried to bar her from playing on the grounds that she was a man, she had to take her fight to the Supreme Court. All of this struck me as being wonderful stuff for a film."
But when Yellen finally began talking with Renee Richards, the doctor had an understandable reluctance to have everything dragged up again. She was now well-to-do, living on Park Avenue, and she wanted to be left alone.
But Yellen, a quiet-spoken but persuasive film maker, had one great advantage. Richards had seen and admired "Playing for Time" and "Prisoner Without a Name," and people she talked to said: "If anyone does your story, it should be Linda Yellen."
For a brief moment, Yellen toyed with the idea of having the dual roles played by Peter Fonda and Jane Fonda. It seemed a good idea, since both have similar features. But once Vanessa Redgrave's name came up, there was no further discussion.
"Anyway," Yellen said, "it seemed to me a much more interesting idea to have a woman playing both roles than a man. After all, the heart of the story is that Dick always had this feeling inside that Renee existed and had to be allowed to emerge. But having made that decision, we had the difficult job of finding the right actress."
"Then we thought of Vanessa, a bold and daring actress. Now we've done tests with her, and she's quite astonishing; everything I expected her to be and more.
"As you know, men, have played women on the screen several times--Jack Lemmon in 'Some Like It Hot,' Dustin Hoffman in 'Tootsie.' But for a woman to play a man in a serious work and get away with it, that's something challenging. Forgetting about 'Yentl,' which was a different sort of story, I can't think when it's been done. You'd probably have to go back to the London stage, years ago, when Sarah Bernhardt played 'Hamlet.' But here we were asking an actress to attempt it using this intimate medium which shows everything."
They used wigs for the first tests of Redgrave as a man. They didn't work. Increasingly depressed, Yellen asked Redgrave to join her over lunch to discuss the problem. Instead, Redgrave pleaded another appointment and went off on her own.
"When I got back," Yellen said, "she was standing there looking just like a man. 'Here's a wig that works,' she said. But it wasn't a wig. She had gone and had her hair all cut off--even had a receding hairline shaved out. She looked just perfect. I said, 'Oh, God, Vanessa, every time I see you, you have to shave your head.' " (Redgrave took off her hair for "Playing for Time.")
Redgrave has not met Renee Richards, but she has seen films of her. And together with Yellen, director Anthony Page and writer Gavin Lambert, she has attended a transsexual group meeting in Santa Monica.
"What's interesting," Yellen said, "is that women to men have a much easier transition than men to women. From often being treated like second-class citizens, women suddenly become first class. Whereas men have an enormous psychological adjustment to make when they become women. There are aspects of being a woman that men cannot possibly imagine."
Yellen, a graduate of Barnard, received an Emmy as executive producer of "Playing for Time," which was scripted by Arthur Miller. She produced, directed and co-wrote "Prisoner Without a Name." Being reunited with Redgrave, an actress she admires hugely, is a rewarding experience.
But now some of her friends and associates are saying, "Why TV? It's a marvelous story. Why didn't you make it for the big screen? There you could have pulled out all the stops."
"But frankly," Yellen said, not at all defensively, "I think it's more interesting because it's being done for television. You wouldn't be surprised at all if I told you we were doing this as a feature. But here we are making something that could well blow the fuses on the sets of much of Middle America. Because I'm going to pull out al the stops anyway.
"I happen to believe that many viewers will stay with something serious. And doing things that make some comment on the human condition is what interests me. I want to do things that haven't been done before--like 'Playing for Time' and 'Prisoner Without a Name.' I'm glad I'm making 'Second Serve' for television."