For going on forty years, Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer has done all she can to see to it that we never forget how adorable she is.
A TV chat show mainstay since the cusp of the ’80s, appearances in movies, adorning bookshelves with a selection of over 40 titles — heck, she even had her own board game at one point — the tiny tyro has made it her mission to preach just one sermon, varying only in the specific questions that come from her host, people who called in to her radio or TV talk shows or strangers on the street.
“Ask Dr. Ruth” is an appreciation, an as-told-by autobiography and a fun ride of a documentary filmed just as “Grandma Freud,” “The Godmother of Good Sex” and “Happy Munchkin of Sex” (she’s 4’7″) was turning 90 — and not slowing down.
Ryan White’s film, in theaters and available on Hulu, seems to have been filmed on a tight schedule in a pretty compact period of time just before her birthday in 2018. You get the impression that if he and his crew had stuck around any lucker, Westheimer would have run them ragged. She all but sprints from one interview to another, appearances at all manner of media and public events.
“Ask Dr. Ruth” uses conversations between its subject and her children and grandchildren and old friends, archival interviews, clips from her breakthrough radio show “Sexually Speaking” and later series to get at who she’s become.
Strangers on the street and callers to whichever show she’s dropping in on exult in her presence, her “non-judgmental” advice.
“You saved my life…You’re an angel.”
But where did she come from? “Ask Dr. Ruth” reminds us of that, too. It’s been decades since the major magazine profiles, the “60 Minutes” feature, were common.
A Frankfort native, she escaped Germany before the Holocaust began in earnest, losing her parents in The Shoah. Animated sequences recreate scenes from her letters, those of her parents, and her diaries.
“I don’t call myself a ‘survivor,’ I call myself an ‘orphan of the Holocaust,'” and one appreciates her exacting choice of words. She was sent to an orphanage in Switzerland, emigrated to Palestine after World War II.
She goes back to Israel, visits the Holocaust research center to see if anything new has come to light after her murdered mother and father. Then she shows us where she lost her virginity, on a kibbutz, where she trained as a sniper in the Israeli Zionist underground, Haganah.
She valued education all her life because one of the last things her father said was “‘You have to learn. Because nobody can take that away from you.”
Frankfort to Switzerland to Israel to Paris and eventually New York — three marriages, children and children, multiple degrees, little Karola Siegel became Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and that was before media discovered her and stardom beckoned — in her mid-50s.
Montages show how big a deal she once was, a self-help pixie who became a pop cultural punchline in the ’80s — loved on talk shows, mocked and imitated by comics, in “Tonight Show” sketches — all in good fun.
And Dr. Ruth, bespectled, giggly and with an accent only Henry Kissinger could appreciate, was in on the joke.
It’s not a particularly revealing film, more a reiteration of her credits and credentials, just a hint here and there about how her parents’ influenced her career choice, even after death. Her son Joel tries to remember Ruth ever talking about losing her parents to The Holocaust. She didn’t unless he or his sister asked.
We see the crowded but homey Washington Heights, NY apartment where she’s lived for 54 years, in “a neighborhood of immigrants.”
We can take in her impact, now, decades after she burst on the scene. And we remember just how verboten most of what she introduced into the public conversation was at the time she first began making noise, frankly and “graphically” discussing sex, sexuality, peccadilloes and quirks.
“There is no ‘normal!'”
She still won’t call herself “a feminist.”
“No. I am olt fashiont! A sqvare!”
And she won’t retire, “no such thing” for me.
After hearing her sing “You are my sunshine” with her first “boyfriend,” Walter, both of them Holocaust orphans, you can’t help but hope she never does.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Dr. Ruth Westheimer
Credits: Directed by Ryan White. A Magnolia/Hulu release.
Running time: 1:40