Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the travel-sized sex therapist and media superstar, has always been more than a German-accented punchline — and Ryan White’s documentary, “Ask Dr. Ruth,” show not only how much of a pioneer Westheimer has been in expanding America’s discussions of sex, but also a person who has seen more tragedy and triumph than most.
White starts with the media caricature of Dr. Ruth, the much-satirized staple of ‘80s and ‘90s talk shows, happily talking about penises and vaginas without blushing. The montage of her appearances with Arsenio Hall, David Letterman and others sets the table for the very real, very warm, and very short (4’7’’) person behind the persona.
Westheimer, who turned 90 last June, still lives in the Washington Heights apartment she shared with her third husband, engineer Fred Westheimer, from just after they married in 1961 to when he died in 1997. She is regularly visited by her two children, Miriam and Joel, and her four grandchildren; there’s a great moment where one granddaughter, Leora, tries to convince grandma that, despite her dislike of the word, is a feminist.
As White digs deeper into Westheimer’s life, he introduces us to Karola Ruth Siegel, a little Jewish girl living a happy life in Frankfurt, Germany. That changes when she’s 10, in 1938, when her parents put little Karola on the kindertransport with other Jewish children, to escape the growing Nazi oppression. She lands at an orphanage in Switzerland, where (as White shows through tender animation sequences) she and the other Jewish children became servants for the Swiss kids.
After World War II, Karola Siegel immigrated to British-controlled Palestine, where she used her middle name, Ruth, because Karola was considered too German. She lived on a kibbutz, and trained with the Israeli underground army as a sniper. Yes, Dr. Ruth is more badass than you ever knew, and at 90, she shows she can still field-strip a rifle, though she hates the whole idea of guns.
Her first marriage took her to Paris, and her second one to America, where she studied psychology and sexuality, and started her first practice as a sex therapist. Then came a surprisingly successful radio show, which made Dr. Ruth the nation’s expert on sex just as the AIDS crisis was beginning. Then came TV, books, and the rest.
White pivots from Westheimer today, still active and writing books, with the looks into her past. Westheimer travels to Frankfurt, Switzerland and Israel to show the camera crew the stops along her life journey. (A trip to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and library, is particularly moving.)
“Ask Dr. Ruth” shows Ruth Westheimer has a few faults — she’s skittishly agnostic about showing favor in electoral politics, for example — but overall presents a portrait of a feisty, fun-loving woman who survived the worst in life and came out perpetually chipper and life-affirming.
‘Ask Dr. Ruth’
Opening Friday, May 3, in select theaters, including the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Not rated, but probably R for language and descriptions of sexuality. Running time: 100 minutes.