Ruth Westheimer, better known as Dr. Ruth, is a German-born Jewish immigrant to the United States who became a fixture in late-night television and a major pop culture figure as a sex therapist, media personality and author.
So says Alexa — the Amazon smart device – in the opening moments of Ask Dr. Ruth, a documentary chronicling Westheimer's life and career on the eve of her 90th birthday. Directed by Ryan White (who produced and directed the Netflix documentary series The Keepers), the film opens Friday at the Cedar Lee.
"Size doesn't matter" is the film's tagline, a reference both to Dr. Ruth's oft-repeated dictum about male endowment and its relevance to female sexual pleasure, and to the doctor's diminutive size. (She is 4-feet, 7-inches tall.) As a very old, very small woman, Dr. Ruth is every bit the warm and lively presence on screen as she was during the height of her popularity in the 1980s. She was already "grandmotherly" back then, and it was the juxtaposition of a smiling older woman with a thick German accent speaking frankly about erections, clitoral stimulation and vibrators that made her radio show such a novelty and hit.
Much like 2014's Jodorowsky's Dune, a documentary about the eccentric Argentine filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and his failed cinematic magnum opus, Ask Dr. Ruth is driven by the buoyancy of its elder subject. Dr. Ruth is a delight to watch as she interacts with friends and family in the present — she calls Alexa "Alexis" at first — and as she discusses sexuality in archival footage.
Her personal history is astonishing as well. Born in Germany in the late 1920s, Ruth was sent to Switzerland as the Nazis rose to power. After the war, she was sent to an Israeli kibbutz and became a sharpshooter during the early Arab-Jewish conflict there. Her pre-USA life, though, to which White devotes considerable time, is sometimes hampered by limited visual material. White takes Dr. Ruth to the locations she describes and films her ambling about. But much of her Swiss childhood is conveyed through animation, which doesn't quite fit the tone of the film at large. The most interesting material is the Speaking Sexually radio program, which unfortunately only occupies the film's final third.
It's a straightforward biographic sketch and includes Dr. Ruth's early advocacy for both abortion rights and AIDS. She has remained, despite these views, avowedly anti-political — she doesn't even like to be called a feminist — and is concerned exclusively with sexual literacy and respect for differences. There is no "normal," Dr. Ruth insists.
Millennial audiences may or may not be familiar with Dr. Ruth — this reviewer, for example, born in 1988, had never heard of her — and there is pleasure in discovering a recent pop-cultural artifact akin to watching Netflix's Wild Wild Country, which documented another cultural phenomenon of the early '80s. — Sam Allard.