PARK CITY, Utah — On line for the world premiere of “Ask Dr. Ruth” at the Sundance Film Festival, I bumped into my slightly younger friend Paul from London. “I gotta admit, I’m excited for this,” I told him. And he had something to admit, too: Until reading about the film in the program, he’d never heard of sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
“She was everywhere in the 1980s and ’90s in America, especially New York,” I said. “This is going to be great.”
The documentary (a love letter, really, from director Ryan White) opens with the 90-year-old, German-born woman quizzing her newly installed Alexa about her own biography, and then races into a montage of “greatest hits” from her television appearances. When there was finally a breath, I turned to my friend. With a big grin, he whispered “I get it.”
With last year’s tremendous financial successes “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” it’s a sure bet that “Ask Dr. Ruth” will be a substantial hit. It’s a sort of blend of the two: the story of a tenacious and trailblazing Jewish woman and a nostalgic voice from a better era of television. And more so than either of those subjects, Dr. Ruth is (and always has been) a firecracker wit and master communicator.
Many people, I’m sure, don’t know her life story. She didn’t even get her doctorate from Columbia University (and become Dr. Ruth) until she was 42. At that point she was already on to her third husband after being, for a time, a single mother. Prior to New York she lived in Paris and Israel, and grew up in an orphanage in Switzerland during the war. She left Frankfurt on a Kindertransport at the age of 10.
Using animation and readings from her diary, the portrayal of Ruth’s war years is bittersweet. Her earliest, pre-teen boyfriend — who’s still alive — reminisces with her, sharing stories of how she secretly read his high school texts late at night. (The Jewish girls in the Swiss orphanage were given limited schooling.)
After the war, when it became evident that her parents had not survived, she lived in a pre-state kibbutz, where she first fell in love. The urban legend you may have heard is now confirmed: yes, Dr. Ruth was, in fact, a trained sniper for the Haganah during Israel’s War of Independence.
She has ambivalent feelings during a return trip there, where she sees some of the weapons she used. She was also wounded — on her 20th birthday — and admits that she faked being unable to feed herself while convalescing so she could have the attention of a handsome male nurse.
The animated footage of Dr. Ruth’s memories is mixed with clips of her current travels, which become quite poignant during a visit to Yad Vashem. There she finally gets the confirmation about something she’s never quite had the courage to learn: the specific time and place of her parents’ deaths.
Sitting beside one of the archivists at a computer terminal, this always forceful and upbeat woman becomes uncommonly unhinged. She stands up and points when she recognizes her father’s name, and a cartwheel of varying emotions tumble across her face. “Very sad,” is all she can say.
Later she comments that only when she gets back home will she cry. “German Jews don’t cry in public.”
As her narrative continues, we learn how she became a star by accident. She was working with social services after a time at Planned Parenthood in Harlem, and was a guest on a radio show. (No one else wanted to do it because it wasn’t a paying gig.)
From there a smart producer realized Dr. Ruth needed her own program, which quickly became the hottest thing around. No one — no one — was taking the topic of sexuality seriously, and presenting frank, medically-based facts mixed with “wise Jewish bubbe” opinion. It was a formula only she could create.
Dr. Ruth at her peak was a household name and someone comedians loved, but was never a punchline. She stood her ground and knew she was doing important work. She is especially revered by the gay community, as she always contended that what happens between consenting adults is A-okay. Moreover, she was among the first to take the AIDS crisis seriously, and felt that the demonization of gay people at the time was derived from the same hate that led to anti-Semitic persecution.
Most of “Ask Dr. Ruth” is nonstop fun. No one else could look their interviewer in the eye and say “this is a stupid question!” in such a friendly, lovable way.
Part of her success has always been speaking her mind, but not getting too specific about politics. (There’s a great scene of her granddaughter explaining that Dr. Ruth is a feminist, even if she refuses to use that label.) But at the post-screening Q&A (where the high altitude mountain air seemed to take no effect on her energy) Dr. Ruth said recent news stories about “families being separated” is causing her to, “for the first time,” bend her rule about speaking out about politics.
Dr. Ruth Westheimer is 90 and shows no sign of slowing down. It’s no wonder to what we owe her longevity and vitality, eh?