Documentary, not rated, 100 minutes, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
A documentary is only as good as its subject, and in Dr. Ruth Westheimer, director Ryan White (The Keepers) has a live one: a 4-foot, 7-inch bundle of irrepressible joy wrapped around a core of impenetrable sadness.
Dr. Ruth, as if you didn’t know, is the diminutive sex therapist who rose to fame in the 1980s by breaking down sexual taboos. She began with 15 minutes of obscurity on her New York radio show Sexually Speaking in the graveyard midnight slot, but her upbeat tone and no-words-barred delivery in an era that had not yet learned to call a vagina a vagina, at least not in public, made her the talk of the town. Her show caught fire and grew to an hour, then two hours, and then she branched out into television shows, guest appearances, books, and even a board game.
This pint-sized phenomenon, this German-accented “munchkin of sex” — who became an American household name at an age when many people are thinking about retirement — began life in 1928 in a Germany where Hitler was on the rise. Her father was arrested by the Nazis the morning after Kristallnacht in 1938, and the following winter her mother put her on a Kindertransport train and sent her off to an orphanage in Switzerland. She never saw her parents again.
White follows his subject around in the weeks leading up to her 90th birthday, as she bustles out from the Washington Heights apartment where she’s lived since before her fame and heads to public and private engagements. She visits an old boyfriend from the orphanage, she sits down with her daughter and granddaughter to argue her resistance to the label “feminist,” she hobnobs with celebrities and media, and she gleefully brandishes a New York Times with its front-page mention of her birthday.
It’s compelling to listen to this legend from the frontlines of the “sexual communication revolution” as she cackles and dispenses no-nonsense advice. Many people emerging from the darkness of sexual repression and oppression credit her for literally saving their lives. A few disapproving voices are raised, questioning the glibness of some of her advice on complicated subjects, but for the most part, this movie accentuates the positives in the Ruth Westheimer we know, while also spending serious time on the little-known tragedy of her origin story. The film’s main drawback is its unfortunate use of a storybook style of animation to fill in the gaps of the orphanage years, her sexual awakening, her two failed marriages, and her coming to America.
The last time I heard Dr. Ruth was a few years ago in the back of a New York City taxi, in a public service announcement reminding me to buckle up for safety. It’s good to see that she’s still a bundle of energy and sexual common sense as she barrels into her 90s.
Ask Dr. Ruth is presented by NOW Women’s Film Series at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 15, at the Center for Contemporary Arts.