We are living in an age of sexual confusion, but only the latest in a long line of such ages. "Second Serve," the CBS movie based on the travails of transsexual tennis star Renee Richards, is about more than a single aberrant sexual event. It investigates the kinds of central human mysteries certain to remain daunting for eons to come.
The film, at 9 tonight on Channel 9, is distinguished by a striking, profound and, considering the material, remarkably ungimmicked performance by Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Richards first as a tormented young man, Richard Raskind, then as the relatively contented woman who was, we are assured, always waiting inside.
Redgrave's accomplishment is more than a matter of mastering gender mannerisms. She gives the story a dignity that dispels any urges to giggle. The script by Stephanie Liss and Gavin Lambert and the direction by Anthony Page hardly constitute a recruitment poster for sex change operations; instead they establish and support the idea that what happened to Richards connects directly to basic questions of behavior.
Unfortunately, the first shot in the film is a rather cheap one: close-ups of medical instruments in an operating room, as if to tease a viewer into thinking the sex change operation is already under way. The scene is just there to establish Richards as a young (male) surgeon. In the course of the early scenes, Redgrave cuddles with, and finally kisses on the mouth, a girlfriend played by Alice Krige. Redgrave is so thoroughly a man in the viewer's eyes by this time that it isn't particularly shocking.
The filmmakers didn't just avoid the tabloid temptations of such a potentially lurid story; they made a movie of formidable density, intelligently provocative. Richards had to give approval for the film, and so it presents her in what could be called a favorable light, but it doesn't pretend that creepy aspects of the story don't exist. They're there in pretty much full creep.
In flashbacks that don't try to explain everything, Richards recalls being dressed up as a girl at age 5 and finding the experience traumatic. Later, Raskind reveals to his mother, a psychiatrist, the ambition to become a woman. Louise Fletcher, back in the medical profession again, makes the old lady chillingly distant.
Others in the cast include Jeff Corey, briefly seen but smashingly good as a sympathetic doctor who turns quickly unsympathetic after pressure from the medical establishment; William Russ as Richards' long-suffering best friend Josh; and Martin Balsam as a psychiatrist who insists the yearnings for womanhood are but a "compartmental psychosis" and tells Raskind, "You have no real desire to become a woman."
One would think that the average, moderately well-adjusted viewer would have a hard time empathizing with Richards' story. That's where Redgrave's insight scores its success. A credit for the film reads, "Miss Redgrave's Transformation Designed by Peter Owen," but the transformation goes deeper than effects. Odd as it may sound, it's moving when, near the end of the film, Richard Venture as Richards' understanding father says helpfully to the son who became a daughter, "You forgot your purse."
In a time in which pop culture is decorated with the likes of Boy George, Michael Jackson and, lest we forget, professional wrestler Adrian Adonis, a latter-day Gorgeous George, Renee Richards' story has lost much of its shock value. The virtue of "Second Serve" is finding the other value in it.
A mention has to be made of Redgrave's persistently appalling off-screen behavior. Last month the pro-Palestinian actress issued a call for British actors to refuse to perform in Israel. The actors' union resoundingly rejected the idea.
Redgrave's political actions and her ambitious work in "Second Serve" tend to reaffirm the idea that there is no correlation between acting ability and intelligence. It's an odd situation to find a performance in a film remarkable and to know that should you have the opportunity to meet the actress who did it, you would refuse to shake her hand.
Daphne Sheldrick has wart hogs in her garden. Also zebras, elephants and a kudu or two. For 20 years, she and her late husband David played willing host to exotic strays at the Tsavo National Park of Kenya, and fortunately, a movie camera was on the premises. Simon Trevor, the producer, was there to use it.
"The Orphan Animals of Tsavo," at 8 tonight on Channel 9, is an awfully quiet and low-key animal special for prime time -- there are no ferocious lions or mating wildebeests in it -- but its vision of life in the wild is captivating.
Rula Lenska, the British actress who became a pseudo-celebrity through a series of TV commercials a few years ago, reads Sheldrick's words as the narration for the film, which not only shows us animals coming and going in the Sheldricks' spectacular back yard, but also their daughter Angela growing up.
Although probably a bit slow for some viewers, "Orphan Animals," one of the "Survival Anglia" specials commissioned by CBS, has a transporting serenity, and that's something commercial television doesn't give you very often.
"Spielberg's on one!" shouts a male secretary. Casting director Mike Fenton picks up the phone without an instant's pause. "Stee-ven, how are you!" he burbles. This is big-time Hollywood talk, and the opportunity to eavesdrop on it is one of the attractions of "Hollywood Dreams," the PBS "Frontline" documentary at 9 tonight on Channel 26.
Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of other attractions. The program is structured to indicate it will survey the filmmaking chain of command and visit key players along the ranks. But then producer and reporter Irv Drasnin drops the intriguing question of how films get made and wanders off to an actors' workshop to consider how people get into the movies.
In footage shot at an acting class, an expression widely considered obscene is spoken by one of the actors. Since it is completely extraneous, it really should have been taken out, whereas the salty language used by agents hustling on the telephone is relevant and inoffensive.
"The telephone? It's like a bayonet in this town," says Bill Block, a 31-year-old agent who estimates he makes 150 calls a day. Scott Rudin, 27-year-old vice president of production at 20th Century Fox, mourns the fact that he passed on "Gremlins." Jeremy Zimmer, 27, is Dore Schary's grandson, a college dropout and a former parking lot manager who now sits in an office trying to negotiate whether Burt Lancaster's or Kirk Douglas' name will appear first in the credits of the film they are about to make.
These glimpses of life at the cushioned barricades are absorbing and fun to watch, but Drasnin doesn't build them into a cohesive portrait of how the new Hollywood works. And the subject of Hollywood hopefuls was covered much better in a public TV documentary called "La La: Making It in L.A." several years ago, so he should have avoided that altogether.
Repeatedly using the song "Hooray for Hollywood" to subdivide the documentary isn't exactly inventive, either, but shots of faithful fans polishing the inlaid stars of their favorite performers along Hollywood Boulevard are amusing. Barry Manilow's star is kept gleaming by doting admirers, it seems, but Ronald Reagan's has, for some reason, fallen into neglect.
Comedian Joe Piscopo does not depend upon the kindness of strangers. He depends on the generosity of friends more talented than he. Naturally, then, cohort Eddie Murphy was enlisted for an appearance on tonight's "Joe Piscopo New Jersey Special," and though Murphy has barely three lines of dialogue, he still manages to upstage the alleged star.
It's hard to imagine another performer who's gone farther on less than Piscopo, whose ABC special, at 10 on Channel 7, is a threadbare vanity affair in which the preeningly overeager Piscopo revives some of the impressions he did on "Saturday Night Live" (Andy Rooney, Allen Funt, David Letterman) and, more gallingly, tries to pass himself off as a rock star. At one point he bleats a refrain that goes, "I wanna sound like a black man." And we know which one.
"New Jersey" is invoked because Piscopo was born in Passaic. Gov. Thomas Kean makes an awkward appearance in a "New Jersey Vice" sketch, which Murphy steals with a few kookily catlike moves a la Philip Michael Thomas. A later sketch, "The Flintstones: The Lost Episodes," with Danny DeVito as Barney Rubble, has possibilities, but few are explored.
Piscopo even hauls his mother, father and siblings in front of the camera, attempting what David Letterman has called "found comedy." Unfortunately, Piscopo doesn't find any. His imitation of Joan Rivers isn't one-tenth as good as the one Terry Sweeney did on "Saturday Night Live" last Saturday. And Piscopo's adolescent compulsion to show off his newly molded biceps is moderately mortifying.
All Joe Piscopo needs is some material and he'll be merely insufferable.