At the beginning of Ask Dr. Ruth, Ruth Westheimer is trying to talk to “Alexis.” She means, of course, “Alexa.” “Alexa, am I going to get a boyfriend?” The virtual assistant says she doesn’t have an answer. “Unplug her!” Westheimer says. “If she doesn’t know that, what good is she?” She’s soothed, though, when Alexa gives her an accurate mini bio of herself. “She knows who I am!” Westheimer says. “I think I’m going to keep her.”
Ryan White’s breezy documentary is full of such charming moments thanks to its 4’7” Energizer Bunny star. Westheimer, long known as “America’s sex therapist,” is 90 years old and shows no signs of stopping. “There is no such thing as retiring for me,” she says. Pierre, her “minister of communications”—think manager—knows she’s not about to slow down, meaning his own retirement plans have been put on hold. “Most people can’t keep up with Dr. Ruth,” he says.
Westheimer became a fixture of TV and radio in the 1980s and ’90s because of her frankness about sex and sexuality combined with a sweet, funny personality. She earned spots on Hollywood Squares and commercials and she also had a sitcom and a board game. She still teaches, gives interviews, and writes books—and doesn’t shy away from words such as “clitoris” and “orgasm,” which may not be so novel these days except for the fact that they come out of the mouth of a little grandma.
Ask Dr. Ruth chronicles Westheimer’s meteoric, late-life climb from a German immigrant to pop-culture staple, but White visits the darkness that’s followed her, too. She survived the Holocaust because her parents sent her to an orphanage in Switzerland when she was 10; her mother, father, and grandmother weren’t so lucky. For years young Ruth—née Karola Siegel—didn’t know the fate of her parents. She only knew that their letters stopped coming. White uses animation to depict these flashbacks with voiceovers from Westheimer along with her visits to orphanage friends, including her first boyfriend. (“He was so handsome!” she says of this guy as well as future boos, including three husbands.)
White follows Westheimer as she goes to Holocaust museums and finally gets to look up her parents in a database of those who were murdered. She finds both of them; there’s a date and place of death for her father, but no information about her mother except that she’d been killed. This seems to weigh heavily on Westheimer, but there are no tears shed, with the therapist seeming to believe in not mourning the past along with, ironically, compartmentalization. Her daughter, Miriam, says that the only time she’s seen her mother cry is when her third husband, to whom she was married for over 40 years, died. Her son, Joel, says that work “is her survival mechanism.”
Despite the documentary’s focus on Westheimer’s tragic past, it’s largely a joy. “I want to show I can walk fast!” she says to the cameraperson after a chapter about how she nearly lost both her legs from a bombing when she lived in Jerusalem. (Fun fact: She was a sniper for the Jewish underground army, but says she never had to shoot.) She frequently asks if people have eaten and, once, if someone has called their mother. Clearly, Westheimer dotes on everyone, not just her children and grandchildren, though they all get screen time here. She didn’t start her career until she was in her 40s and knows that the battle was hard-won. “From my background, all of the things that I’ve survived,” she says, “I have an obligation to live large and make a dent in this world.”
Ask Dr. Ruth opens Friday at Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema.