Ask Dr. Ruth is a cut above typical bio-docs
In Ask Dr. Ruth, director Ryan White chronicles the life and career of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, sex therapist extraordinaire. Like White, I was born after Dr. Ruth became a household name, and a staple on late night TV couches, so the woman behind the persona was a bit of a mystery to me. And although White's documentary does a good job of outlining how a pint-sized grandma with a powerhouse personality became a star, what the film omits is just as telling of its subject as what it chooses to indulge in.
White's documentary has the format of many a solid profile of an icon (think last year's RBG). What made this slightly more interesting for me as a viewing experience was my complete ignorance of Westheimer's early life, particularly her harrowing experience escaping the Holocaust as a ten-year-old girl. White uses animated sequences to depict Westheimer's childhood, and I can only imagine it's because she still has a hard time discussing that time in depth, not only to the cameras, but to her own family. Westheimer isn't one to dwell on the past, and even though we watch a very brief sequence of her searching a database of Holocaust victims to learn the fate of her parents, she processes the information at a bit of a distance. She is most definitely unwilling to share with the camera the great loss we know she must feel, yet it's undeniable that such loss has fueled her throughout her life and career.
White's film also limits its use of traditional talking-head interviews and opts instead for more casual conversations between Ruth and her family and friends, as well as optimally selected archival clips of her interacting with the likes of Johnny Carson, Conan O'Brien, Jerry Seinfeld, Arsenio Hall, and more. But even as these segments in all their bawdy glory make us laugh, White also reminds us that above all else, Dr. Ruth's legacy is her ability to allow us to talk about sex in public. It's so simple, yet so incredibly profound, I almost couldn't believe what was being discussed on the air on her radio show (albeit at 12:00 Sunday nights), and on her TV show in front of a live studio audience (albeit at 10:00 on weekday nights). And most importantly, her use of humor never undermines what is her greatest gift: to speak about sex with dignity, and to speak to those seeking advice with respect.
Despite the incredible progress Dr. Ruth made in the realm of sex therapy she wasn't with out her detractors, both in the form of other professionals who found her advice too pithy and therefore dangerous (think of Niles's opinions of his brother’s radio show on Frasier), and the conservative public who thought such straightforward talk about taboo subjects warranted a citizen's arrest. What's ironic about the latter is Dr. Ruth's own self-identification as a rather conservative person, to which her family is quick to qualify with examples to the contrary, such as her pro-choice views, and support of LGBTQ rights. I think Westheimer's point about her conservatism is not to confuse being able to speak openly and honestly about sex with being liberal. The film doesn't go into too much of the negativity of Westheimer and her work. Like its subject, the film chooses to acknowledge the bad with a firm focus on moving forward. Forever forward. Even at age 90, Dr. Ruth shows no signs of stopping. After watching this film, I have to think the reason is obvious.
Ask Dr. Ruth opens in Philly theaters today.