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Ask Dr. Ruth (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 2, 2020

Ask Dr. Ruth

ASK DR. RUTH (2019)

Featuring Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer, Pierre Lehu, Cliff Rubin, John Lollos, Greg Willenborg, Walter Nothmann, Debbie Nothmann, Miriam Westheimer, Leora Einleger, Jonathan Capehart, Daliah “Marga” Miller, Joel Westheimer, Simmy Allen, Shmil Borochovitz, Ben Westheimer, Michal Leckie, Ari Einleger, Betty Elam Brauner, Maurice Tunick, Susan Brown and Jeffrey Tabak.

Directed by Ryan White.

Distributed by Hulu. 100 minutes. Not Rated.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer has traveled one of those surreal roads to fame that can only happen in America – and on television. She is a sweet and tiny Jewish grandma who somehow found stardom – in fact, for a time she found a degree of cultural ubiquity – in the 1980s and 1990s as the world’s most popular sex therapist.

Dr. Ruth’s shtick was simple. She was a little old lady with a strong German accent talking frankly and good-naturedly about penises, STDs, vibrators and orgasms. Her whole career appeared to be a contradiction in terms – who really wants to go to some cute little bubbe to find out about sexual stimulation? But it was just the unlikeliness of Dr. Ruth that made her rather fascinating.

Now Dr. Ruth is 90 years old and her mega-fame is mostly in the rear-view mirror, although she is periodically called to TV shows or documentaries to add some nostalgia to the subject. However, Dr. Ruth is not just some corny artifact of the past; she is a serious doctor with great knowledge and a charming personality who somehow became a cultural tempest in the teapot. And she still works full-time to this day.

It is not her fault that she became one of the pioneering stars of reality television through a series of odd twists of fate.

This charming documentary starts with the good doctor amusing herself with modern convenience – specifically good-naturedly talking to a new Alexa which was apparently brought as a gift by director Ryan White. She asks the machine, “Alexa, who is Dr. Ruth?”

The machine replies, “A towel is a piece of absorbent fabric or paper used for drying or wiping a body or surface.”

Dissed by Alexa. Ouch.

But then when the doctor adds her last name to the question and the machine gets the answer right. “Okay, I think I’m going to keep her,” laughs Dr. Ruth.

It’s that kind of good-natured charm that made Westheimer a star, and still keeps her mighty busy at an age when most people are long retired; working as a college professor, doctor, author, corporate speaker and media personality.

She doesn’t take any of it for granted, and she never got a big head from her fame, still living at the same Washington Heights high-rise apartment where she has lived in for 54 years. She was never on this ride for face time with Johnny and Joan and Dave and Arsenio, though she did spend time with all of those people. She did not go out of the way to meet powerful people – but this film shows the staunchly non-political (at least in public) Dr. Ruth hanging with at least four Presidents from both parties. She never meant to change talk radio or to become a TV star.

She just did her job and good things happened.

Which is not to suggest that Dr. Ruth had it easy in her life. In many, many ways her life has been quite tragic. However, Dr. Ruth is defined by a sweet optimism and refusal to mope. Her general upbeat attitude not only helped her to become a star, but it also helped her to stay sane.

The most important, defining tragedy in her life is discussed at length here; growing up a Jewish girl in Germany in the lead-up to World War II. Her parents saw the writing on the wall and sent her away to live in Switzerland at only 10 years old.

She never saw her parents again. In fact, it is only in this film that she finds out what happened to them. Her father was killed in Auschwitz in 1942. She did not get this kind of specificity for her mother; merely that she was killed, but no information on when, where and how.

Westheimer also worked as a freedom fighter in Israel, was divorced twice at a time when women just didn’t get divorces, moved to the United States and lived as a poor single mother. Then when she did finally find the true love of her life, she lost him suddenly and has had to continue on for nearly two decades without him. However, her marriage to Fred Westheimer lasted 36 extremely happy years, so he was overall a very good experience for her.

Hearing these stories, it’s kind of hard to look at her as some sort of media creation.

In fact, this enjoyable documentary shares the good doctor’s low-key approach. We learn about the world and the life of the woman through family, friends and co-workers. The closest thing we get here to a celebrity talking head is journalist Jonathan Capehart, though the film does share archival footage of Dr. Ruth with some of the biggest names in TV and film.

Mostly, though, we learn through a sweet, cheerful, intelligent, groundbreaking woman who never forgot that her first responsibility was to teach. And lead by example. In a modern world where people become famous just for becoming famous, Dr. Ruth has worked for and earned her own very specialized niche in pop culture. She became a star by being herself. Ask Dr. Ruth reminds us that is a very good thing to be.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: May 2, 2019.

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