“Ryan!” Dr. Ruth Westheimer exhorts director Ryan White in her distinguished, scratchy-but-soft German croak. “I want you to show that I can walk fast!” White being the obliging type, he acquiesces; Westheimer being the determined type, she hoofs it from street to curb to sidewalk, her short stature less an obstacle to a quick pace than a cover for it. The moment occurs at the halfway mark of White’s biographical documentary about Westheimer’s life, Ask Dr. Ruth, and endures no more than a few seconds, but it’s a good moment, a warm instructive beat that captures her spirit in what most might read as trivial filler.
The trick with Westheimer is that nothing pertaining to her is trivial. She’s very much the sum of her parts, a woman ever on a mission, whether she’s browsing through a gun collection comprising old, exceptionally large assault weapons and disarmed grenades, conducting personal research at Yad Vashem or teaching the American public about the complications, nuances and virtues of a healthy sex life. Westheimer’s celebrity identity is baked into Ask Dr. Ruth’s title. For most, she’s, well, Dr. Ruth, America’s sex obsessed grandma, a meme generator made flesh—and perhaps, though vaguely, a major influence on how people across the world talk about, think about and feel about sex.
Westheimer isn’t the first woman in history to express frankly her opinions on the delicate matter of getting down (see: Helen Gurley Brown), and if Ask Dr. Ruth slips in any way, it’s in suggesting that she is. Be that as it may, she built a whole career not only on talkin’ sex, but talkin’ sex on an astronomical pop cultural scale, with men occupying considerable space in her conversations. She’s an egalitarian therapist, unfailingly compassionate: White presents archival footage of men speaking aloud (via the protective layer of a phone call) their sexual fears and insecurities, an activity in which they’re traditionally discouraged from participating. Westheimer listens with active ears and empathy, dispensing advice with her trademark combination of sage wisdom and bawdy humor. In the time of “toxic masculinity,” hearing these confessions, and observing how deftly she processes them, provides a necessary tonic for the soul.
But Westheimer’s greater purpose is less about providing comfort and relief for men (though she certainly does care about that) and more about contextualizing how little women’s pleasure is typically taken into account in the bedroom. That’s the soul of her work. Unsurprisingly, she’s the soul of the film, the power in front of the throne, so rich with vitality that Ask Dr. Ruth feels like her production rather than White’s. It’s normally the director’s job to chronicle their subject; White’s job is to keep up with his, as if he stepped into her path and wound up caught in her nonstop whirlwind of activity. That’s a difficult job, though frankly in some ways easier than the average documentary. He doesn’t have to do much more than match pace with a nonagenarian.
Anyone who’s been through as much, and seen as much, in their lives as Westheimer necessarily maintains a spark of vitality of which most are deprived. (Granted, “deprived” in this case means “unharmed by life in Nazi Germany,” so take care not to pout over her incalculable vigor.) Yes, Westheimer’s a hoot, and yes, a book of Dr. Ruth memes could be compiled from the earlier phases of her career—like the time she took Arsenio Hall to Condomania for a bit on his late night talk show—but Ask Dr. Ruth admonishes the viewer that Westheimer isn’t a punchline. She’s a survivor, a victim and a fighter, though in all honesty she’d probably have a good jape to make at being described as any of these. She even rejects the mantle of “feminist,” despite her daughter and her granddaughter pulling her card and more or less leading her into admitting that she’s the very definition “feminist.”
It’s these particulars that make Westheimer such a compelling figure, but it’s her life experiences as a child of the Kindertransport, as a woman married three times, as an author whose bibliography totals more years than I’ve been alive and as a person of utmost educational achievement that make her worth profiling. Her personality is the gravy binding all of these details together. Without that, White would have to do more of the essential legwork, other than the legwork he has to do to stay in proximity with her. It’s her unstoppability, her tireless drive to see through the work she believes needs doing in the field of sexual enlightenment that gives Ask Dr. Ruth real urgency, lifting what’d be an otherwise breezy character portrait to near essential levels.
Director: Ryan White
Starring: Dr. Ruth Westheimer
Release Date: May 3, 2019; on Hulu June 1, 2019
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.