With her twinkling eyes, mischievous grin, and clear zest for talking about all things intimate, Dr. Ruth Westheimer — the public version of her, anyway — has always been an easy woman to like. Happily, Ryan White’s engaging documentary about America’s pre-eminent sex therapist, Ask Dr. Ruth, provides ample evidence that she’s just as appealing once you get to know her better.
The film traces Westheimer’s life from her childhood in Germany as the daughter of Orthodox Jews through her time in Switzerland during World War II — she was evacuated via the Kindertransport in 1939 — and her eventual moves to Palestine, France, and America. She married young, divorced, married again, divorced again, and then met and married her “forever husband,” Fred Westheimer, and was with him for more than 20 years (as she says at one point, her first two marriages were “legalized love affairs”). Along the way, she studied psychology, had two children (sometimes caring for them as a single mom), and found herself working at Planned Parenthood.
It all led to the launch of her seminal radio show, Sexually Speaking, which premiered in 1980 on New York’s WYNY-FM. The show quickly gained in popularity and was syndicated in 1984, making Westheimer — now known by all as “Dr. Ruth” — a household name. She delighted Johnny Carson and David Letterman on the talk show circuit, popped up on Hollywood Squares,”and generally became known for her enthusiastic, non-judgmental approach to human sexuality. Empathetic and impossible to shock, her goal is just for everyone to feel good about what makes them feel good.
For someone as interested in intimacy issues as Westheimer has always been, those interviewed in the film (including her adult children) make it clear that sharing her own innermost thoughts and feelings with others doesn’t come easily to her. That fact helps give some of the movie’s most poignant moments — when Westheimer talks about being separated from her family as a girl, when she recalls the pain of losing Fred, and when she finally allows herself to absorb the details of what happened to her parents during the Holocaust — real emotional heft. But White keeps the tone light and frequently playful overall, with plenty of room for the kind of wink-wink nudge-nudge banter for which Dr. Ruth is beloved. In the end, it’s a charming, affectionate portrait of a dynamic woman who’s helped countless people, both in the bedroom and out of it. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Susan Wloszczyna: The Happy Munchkin of Sex. Grandma Freud. The Goddess of Good Sex. Rare is the person who gives other humans the license to actually feel good about themselves – both sexually and mentally. Dr. Ruth Westheimer became a media sensation in the ‘80s and ‘90s, a household name and a cultural sensation. But as the documentary Ask Dr. Ruth reveals, her career path as a sex therapist might have started when she was a 10-year-old German refugee whose mother and grandmother put her on a train to Switzerland to escape from the Nazis. That she raised the spirits of the other scared Jewish boys and girls traveling with her by encouraging them to sing tunes together says a great deal about her insight at such a young age. Dr. Ruth fought the good fight when the AIDs crisis broke out and gay men were treated as social refugees themselves. She knocked down myths and spoke the truth about the deadly disease and stood up for their rights. Now that women’s reproductive choices are being endangered by male politicians trying to negate what is already the law of the land when it comes to abortion, this revealing and inspiring ode to a 90-year-old crusader is a timely reminder that we can never let down our guard and be complacent.
Marilyn Ferdinand: White’s documentary offers a well-rounded look at this dynamo who encourages others to let it all hang out, but who keeps a lid on her own emotions as a survival mechanism. Ruth Westheimer is a bonafide hero whom everyone can get to know through this gracious, informative documentary.Read full review.
Marina Antunes Dr. Ruth is best known as “America’s Sex Therapist” but as Ryan White’s documentary Ask Dr. Ruth reveals, there’s much more to Ruth Westheimer. A Holocaust survivor, a sniper, a single mother at a time when single mothers were a rarity, a pioneer in reproductive education and later sex education, Dr. Ruth, as she has been so lovingly referred to since early in her public career, is also an accomplished author, loving mother, grandmother and friend (she’s still friendly with her first boyfriend!), and an amazing human being who, at 90, is still as sharp and active and as ever. Amidst the charm of Ruth’s story, her grin and laugh are infectious, White captures something else: the American Dream fulfilled; the story of an orphaned Jewish girl from Germany, dislocated by war, who travels to America with little money and makes good for herself and her family. Inspiring indeed.
MaryAnn Johanson Dr. Ruth Westheimer, America’s favorite sex therapist, may refuse to call herself a feminist here. But she cannot stop me from calling her a stone-cold, rock-solid feminist icon. From WWII orphan to postwar refugee to single working mother to her now famous work as the taboo-busting, stereotype-shattering giver of warm, wise advice of the most intimate sort in the most public forums imaginable (radio, TV, and everywhere else), she embodies the toughest of roads that women travel, and the biggest successes we can have. No one could have imagined the likes of her — tiny, sweet, granny-esque — speaking so frankly about sex (everyone should enjoy it) and about shame (no one should experience it). We have her to thank, too, for advocating so forcefully for women’s sexual pleasure. She’s a treasure, as this delightful film celebrates so beautifully.
Leslie Combemale Dr. Ruth Westheimer, to many, was someone who opened the door to discussions about sex in a new, authentic way. She’s still at it, even as she is fully into her 90s. Ask Dr. Ruth, director Ryan White’s new documentary about the cultural icon, follows Dr. Ruth from her early life, as she suffers through loss and lives through the holocaust, through her training and career as a family and sex therapist, and beyond into her fame on radio and television as a public figure, doing it all as reluctant feminist. The watching of the film, though it shows much of her life was marked by tragedy, will bring joy to viewers. Ruth herself is so clearly centered in joy. Seeing how Dr. Ruth not only rose above her challenges, but chose and still chooses to follow happiness at every turn all the while helping countless others, will be a balm to anyone looking for at least a little inspiration from their films.
Loren King For many people, the name Dr. Ruth Westheimer summons an image of a diminutive sex therapist who was ubiquitous on television in the late 1980s. The new documentary Ask Dr. Ruth delivers an entertaining, enlightening portrait that shows she was, and is, so much more. Ask Dr. Ruth puts Westheimer’s zest for life and progressive attitudes toward sex into context. Read full review.
Nell Minow: Experiencing the worst of humanity led Dr. Ruth to understand the vital importance of connection and intimacy. Training as a military sniper bolstered her fearlessness. And being a Jewish grandmother made her accessible. This warm-hearted documentary shows us just how remarkable — and essential — her contributions have been.
Sheila Roberts In an era where abortion remains a hot topic, she continues to believe it should be available and refuses to compromise. While many see her as a radical feminist role model, Dr. Ruth surprisingly does not. Being an only child who lost her family to the Holocaust and had to make decisions for her own life at an early age, she believes that women need to take the initiative and responsibility for their own sexuality. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin Ryan White’s Ask Dr. Ruth is a thoroughly charming biodoc about Dr. Ruth Westheimer, America’s beloved sex therapist. You may think you know Dr. Ruth intimately from her candid and graphic public discussions of every aspect of human sexuality, but this enlightening documentary reveals that her life’s journey has not been easy and that she has, in fact, overcome enormous adversity without giving in to despair. Read full review on CINEMA CITIZEN.
Sandie Angulo Chen: A powerful chronicle of feminist icon Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer, the nearly 91-year-old Holocaust survivor who grew up to teach and counsel four decades’ worth of people about sex, consent, and desire. It’s devastating to see what Ruth (born Karola Siegel to Orthodox Jewish parents in Frankfurt, Germany) had to overcome as a child of the Holocaust. Her history as the “other” — a German Jew, as an immigrant, as a tiny person in a big world – informs her capacity for generosity. The documentary explores Dr. Ruth’s own romantic and sexual history and how much good she’s done in the world, helping countless to feel safe in their sexuality. Here’s to the two pioneering and unstoppable Ruths — Westheimer and Bader Ginsburg — who’ve changed America and the world for the better.
Elizabeth Whittemore Dr. Ruth is an icon. Even if she won’t call herself a feminist, she is undoubtedly just as powerful an influence as RBG or Gloria Steinem. The story of how she came to be one of the most important voices for women owning their sexuality is fraught with sadness and adversity. Nothing stopped her from making a name for herself against all odds. Her voice is still so important for women, young and old alike. Ask Dr. Ruth utilizes storybook-like animation, diary entries, and archived footage, mixed with realtime access to her modern day chaotic schedule. She’s a force that will not be slowed down. Her entire journey has been fueled by pure love and gumption. From her adoration for her children and grandchildren to her search for the truth behind the deaths of her parents in the Holocaust. Dr. Ruth remains a role model and a speaker of truth on more than just sex.
Cate Marquis Dr. Ruth Westheimer always looked like an unlikely on-air sex therapist, which may have been part of her success. The documentary Ask Dr. Ruth is not about her advice but her even more unlikely personal story. Did you know she is a Holocaust survivor? Is an avid skier? Was a sniper in the Israeli armed forces? Yeah, neither did I. Read full review.
Title: Ask Dr. Ruth
Directors: Ryan White
Release Date: May 3, 2019
Running Time: 100 minutes
Distribution Company: Magnolia Pictures
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin