Film

Review: Frank Talk, Tough Memories and All Sorts of Charm in Ask Dr. Ruth

Last year, audiences got an up close and personal look into the life and work of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, with the acclaimed documentary RBG. (Actually, they got two looks, with a narrative version starring Felicity Jones as the jurist in On the Basis of Sex, also released last year). Now, another octogenarian is the center of her own story in Ask Dr. Ruth, about Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the sex-therapist and media personality who taught an entire generation how to talk about sex and intimacy. Directed by Ryan White, the film revisits the stir Dr. Ruth caused over the years with her frank, blunt talk about all things male and female and while recounting her own beginnings as a survivor of the Holocaust and her personal trials over the years.

Ask Dr. Ruth

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Before the film dives into any of that (often with animated flashback sequences), we meet Dr. Ruth today, on the brink of celebrating her 90th birthday and as busy as ever. She’s juggling as many professional obligations as she did in her heyday, invitations and appearances that have her dispensing the same common sense advice about love and relationships that she’s been sharing for years. Her press liaison of more than three decades marvels at her pace (and we do, too), listing off the travel and engagements she’s booked to just in the coming weeks. If ever there was an icon for keeping active even at an advanced age, Dr. Ruth is it. Through it all, she remains witty and bright, with a thousand-watt smile and child-like laugh that’s familiar to anyone who’s ever crossed her path. It’s a portrait of resilience and grit, we soon learn, given what she’s lived through to get here.

Born in 1928 to a Jewish family in Germany, she was barely 10 years old when the Nazis occupied her small town and her parents were deported to concentration camps. Oblivious to all of this, young Karola (her birth name) was sent off to Sweden for her own safety, where she lived in an orphanage waiting eagerly for letters from her mother and father. Though she never received news of their deaths then, soon the letters stopped and she understood their fate for herself. This tragic start to her colorful, eventful life seems only to have fueled her desire to live life fully, to not waste a moment of the time she’s given, and to seize every opportunity offered her.

As a teenager, she emigrated to Israel, where she served in the national army; her small stature (she’s famously short, just 4’7″) made her perfect for sniper training, and she suffered a serious injury to her feet and legs during the Palestine War of 1947-49. In one of the most poignant moments of the film, Dr. Ruth attests that had it not been for the medical care she received after the injury, she would never have walked again, let alone gone on to do all the good she did. By the 1950s, Dr. Ruth was at university in Paris, and then emigrated to the United States with her young daughter, Miriam; she’d already been married twice, and left her second husband (and Miriam’s father) in order to go to the U.S. and find her future.

Anyone’s life story would be quite complete at that, having survived and experienced so much and now more than deserving of a happily ever after in America. But Dr. Ruth’s life is no ordinary story, and certainly didn’t end there. Granted the opportunity to study with one of the field’s earliest thinkers, Dr. Ruth (who changed her name upon arriving in America) quickly realized that she’d found her calling in sex therapy. A midnight radio show quickly followed, which—in the days before the internet and social media—quickly went viral with New Yorkers and then the whole country. Anyone who watched Oprah or Phil or the rest in the 1980s knows how the story goes from there: TV appearances, advice columns, books, commercials, even a short-lived sitcom. No one was speaking to the American public the way the grandmotherly Dr. Ruth did, and (mostly) everyone was eager to listen. The archival footage of a young Conan O’Brien squirming as he fields her directly, anatomically correct conversation on his late night show is particularly charming.

White’s film, which includes perspectives from both her children (Miriam, and a son, Joel, with her third and “real” husband Manfred Westheimer) and several of her grandchildren as well as those who know her and the field best, is a wonderfully winning portrait of a woman who perhaps single-handedly changed the way the American public speaks about our bodies, how we relate to them and how they relate to others. If the world is in need of additional female role-models (and it is) after the likes of RBG, Dr. Ruth is a welcome addition to the line-up, and it’s our absolute privilege that such an endearing, enjoyable portrait of her exists in her later (but no less busy!) years.

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