Ask Dr. Ruth (Ryan White, 2019) 3½ out of 4 stars.
I remember well the first moment I heard Dr. Ruth Westheimer on the radio, her thick German accent wrapping itself deliciously around syllables theretofore unspoken on the airwaves. Though her “Sexually Speaking” show originated in New York in the early 1980s, on the now-defunct WYNY, it quickly grew in popularity and was then syndicated, allowing people like me, far from the Big Apple, to enjoy Westheimer’s practical advice in all its outrageous glory. The appeal of the message was in its frankness and the unlikely vessel of its delivery: a no-nonsense, diminutive fifty-something grandmother with a delightful crinkle in her voice (and later, once on TV, a twinkle in her eye). A licensed sex therapist with impeccable academic credentials, Westheimer – or Dr. Ruth, as she soon became known – leapt from a tiny station to the bigtime of national television within less than 5 years of her debut, forever transforming our national discourse on all matters sexual. A force of nature, she is still going strong at 90, as we see in director Ryan White’s supremely engaging documentary about her, entitled simply Ask Dr. Ruth.
The film offers a comprehensive profile of its subject, following Westheimer as she travels across the globe, revisiting her past and reconnecting, in the present, with those who have journeyed by her side. Born Karola Ruth Siegel in 1928 to a Jewish family in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, she was forced to flee the country for Switzerland in 1938, where she took up residence, along with other Jewish children, in a Swiss orphanage, her parents remaining behind. Sadly, her mother and father would eventually perish in the Holocaust, but she survived and made her way in the post-war years to Palestine, where she joined other Jewish hopefuls as they planned their future homeland, there adopting her middle name in favor of the more German-sounding “Karola.” From there, she went to Paris, beginning a lifetime of rigorous study that would continue once she emigrated to the United States in the 1950s. Married three times, she found true love with the last one, Manfred Westheimer, an engineer, to whom she remained wed until he died in 1997.
Her various media programs, reaching increasingly wide audiences, were revolutionary in both style and content. Never one to shy away from stating her opinions, Dr. Ruth was one of the few voices of reason in popular culture at the start of the AIDS crisis, refusing to allow any hysteria about the disease to remain unchallenged. Beyond that, the mere fact that she led open conversations about human desire and sexuality, gay and straight, conventional and wild, gave permission to her fans to open their minds, hearts and, yes, bodies to all manner of experiences, and to do so without shame. She is a national treasure and should be cherished. Thanks to White (Netflix’s The Keepers) and his mostly marvelous (if occasionally long) film about her, we can do so again and again.