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by Peter Knegt
April 25, 2011 5:11 AM
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"Renée" and "Carol Channing" Help Kick Off Tribeca This Weekend

Dori Berinstein's "Carol Channing: Larger than Life."

In the first few days of the 10th Tribeca Film Festival, two documentaries detailing the lives of a pair of American icons made their world debuts: Eric Drath's "Renée" and Dori Berinstein's "Carol Channing: Larger Than Life." The former takes on Renée Richards, the first transsexual tennis player in the women's U.S. Open, while the latter is a portrait of Broadway legend Carol Channing.

Both docs take a generally conventional approach, with archival footage being mixed with an extensive variety of talking heads (for "Renée," tennis legends Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova make appearances, while "Channing" features everyone from Barbara Walters to Debbie Reynolds to Lily Tomlin) and present-day interviews with both Richards and Channing (now 76 and 90 years old, respectively). The result is two affecting portraits of genuinely inspiring women who made a big mark on the 20th Century popular culture, both of which seemed to rouse very positive responses from their Tribeca audiences.

Unfortunately for those at the "Channing" screening - which was definitely the more enthusiastic of the two (applause greeted Channing's zingers on a good dozen occasions) - Ms. Channing herself had to cancel her attendance at the last minute do to illness. Director Berinstein expressed Channing's regret at the Q&A, and then offered the story of their connection.

"When I started working on the project when I was five," Berinstein quipped. "My parents took me to see Carol in 'Hello, Dolly!' and seeing her on stage absolutely transformed me and changed my life. I was addicted to theater from that point on."

Many years later, Berinstein (who was at Tribeca in 2008 with senior citizen hip-hop dance team doc "Gotta Dance") befriended Channing and was overwhelmed by what an entertaining storyteller she was.

"Stop," Berinstein recalled saying to Channing. "I don't want to hear anything else. May I please get a camera and you can tell me stories. Initially I wasn't sure what I was capturing other than stories. But as things unfolded, it became clear that this needed to be a feature film.

Renée Richards and Eric Drath at the screening of "Renée." Photo by Peter Knegt.
The director's admiration for Channing is evident in the film, which presents her in an exclusively positive light (though according to everyone featured in the film, this is certainly a rightful depiction) and bookends Channing's more historical narrative with a heartwarming recent addition to her story: Finding love with her childhood sweetheart Harry Kullijian some 60 years after they parted ways as teenagers. Some of the darker elements of Channing's life make appearances (her suggestively nasty relationship with publicist Charles Lowe, who she was married to for 42 years, and her battle with ovarian cancer), but overall Berinstein keeps things light.

"Renée," on the other hand, goes to significantly darker places than "Channing" in its depiction of a clearly more challenged life. Richards was born Richard Raskind in 1934, and spent the first 40 years of her life secretly struggling with gender identity issues as she admirably managed to become a renowned eye surgeon, an exceptional and somewhat famed tennis player, and a husband and father. But after a series of failed attempts at coming to terms with her gender identity, Richard became Renée in 1975, and initially chose to abandon her life and take on a quiet life of relative solitude. But this would not last long, as her love for tennis brought her back to the courts, where she quickly rose in the ranks of women's tennis players. This resulted in an internationally publicized fight against the United States Tennis Association, and in 1977 she won the right to play as a woman. A pivotal leader in public fight for transgendered people in America, Richards displays a remarkable fortitude throughout the film, both in the historical footage and in director Drath's contemporary interviews.

Richards - who currently lives in upstate New York and continues to work as an ophthalmologist - joined Drath at the emotional Q&A for the film's world premiere at Tribeca.

"There were a lot of surprises," she said of viewing the film for the first time. "I'm going to have digest this tonight and see it again. I think that the things that impressed me the most were the remarks from my peers and my closest friends... A lot of these seats are populated with those people right here, right now. From the tennis world, from the medical world... I'm very fortunate and was able to endure and carry on and do all that I did have the support of all of them. They took care of me, and they still do."

Both "Renée" and "Carol Channing: Larger Than Life" continue to screen through the end of the Tribeca Film Festival this weekend.

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