Ruth-Top Tonic Hour
FilmScene — Friday, May 10 at 5 p.m.
Dr. Ruth Westheimer doesn’t want to talk about how much money she has or “who she’s sleeping with.” She won’t move out of her cluttered apartment in the predominately immigrant New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights, just because she’s a celebrity. She doesn’t like to call herself a Holocaust survivor; she prefers “orphan of the Holocaust,” having been placed on a train from Frankfurt, Germany, to a Swiss orphanage by her mother and grandmother before they, like her father, were shipped off to Nazi camps. And she absolutely won’t shed tears in public, even as she learns, officially and in black and white, the fate of her long-lost parents almost 80 years after World War II.
A new documentary about Westheimer — the 4-foot-7 German refugee turned radio sex show host turned TV star turned 40-time author — doesn’t exactly break down the famed sex-talker’s walls. But Ask Dr. Ruth, produced by Hulu and screening now at FilmScene, does offer a slick, fascinating and moving biography of Westheimer.
Those who enjoyed 2018’s RBG will likely relish this new documentary of a highly educated, Jewish New Yorker who rose to prominence challenging sex and gender norms in the second half of the 20th century, enjoyed a fairytale marriage before being widowed, and shuns the very notion of retirement, continuing to work around the clock well into her eighties.
But like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Weistheimer’s story is singular. She was trained as a sniper with the Haganah, a paramilitary organization, in Jerusalem during the Palestinian war of the late 1940s (though she says she never killed anyone), before nearly losing her legs in a bombing. She fulfilled her dream of immigrating to America, where she studied psychology, earned her Ed.D. and worked for Planned Parenthood. Along the way, she was married three times — two, she says, were mere “legalized love affairs,” the third to her soulmate, Frank Westheimer.
After researching and teaching human sexuality for years, Westheimer agreed to host a late-night show at WNYC-FM called Sexually Speaking, where she took questions from anonymous callers, answering their sex and relationship questions on-air, frankly and professionally. The show was a runaway hit, and launched her career as “Grandma Freud,” lovable sex therapist to the nation. Because people found it hard to pronounce her last name, Westheimer went by Dr. Ruth.
Though a fellow psychologist interviewed in Ask Dr. Ruth criticized Westheimer as “reckless” for offering sometimes drastic advice to callers — such as recommending they end their relationships — based on short conversations, there’s no doubt Westheimer’s work served to normalize taboos, including masturbation, contraception, abortion and homosexuality. She was also an avid supporter of the gay community and HIV/AIDS patients in the early ’80s, when fear and misinformation pervaded the airwaves.
Much of this information can be gleaned from Westheimer’s Wikipedia page, and the many, many TV interviews and newspaper profiles of the therapist over the years. What Ask Dr. Ruth provides especially for its viewers is an intimate — or, at least, as intimate as Westheimer allows — look at her tumultuous childhood, sexual awakening, marriages, obsessive love for her children and grandchildren and her extroverted, effervescent, endlessly charming personality. Lovely animation accompanies Westheimer’s stories, including readings of the diaries and letters she’s held onto for decades. She even sits down for an on-camera conversation with her first boyfriend, a fellow German Jewish refugee who also toiled at the Swiss orphanage.
If you want a juicy look at Dr. Ruth’s most lascivious sex advice, you’d be better off reading her books or revisiting old episodes of The Dr. Ruth Show or What’s Up, Dr. Ruth? But if you want to spend an hour and a half with a cultural icon, recalling just how much America needed an unfettered sexual cicerone in the ’80s and ’90s, tune in and turn up. It’s worth it just to hear an 89-year-old dissect the term “cock teasing.”
Check the FilmScene schedule for screenings of Ask Dr. Ruth. Tonight, May 10, the cinema will host a special event centered around the film. A ticket includes two Dr. Ruth-inspired cocktails (served on FilmScene’s “Ruth-top”), a full-sized bottle of Joanna’s Tonic Syrup, free popcorn and, of course, admission to the movie.