Inside Dr. Ruth’s living room, an Amazon Alexa has just been installed.
“Alexa, am I going to get a boyfriend?” the almost 90-year-old asks. The machine responds, “Sorry, I don’t know that.”
She laughs, like an amused child. “I don’t know either. Unplug her. If she doesn’t know that, what good is she?”
Dr. Ruth follows it up with another question: “Alexa, who is Dr. Ruth Westheimer?”
“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.”
“She knows who I am,” Dr. Ruth says, smiling. “I think I’m going to keep her.”
This opening scene of Ryan White’s Ask Dr. Ruth, which premiered Friday at Sundance, perfectly captures the energy of the 100-minute look at the life and work of the famed sex therapist. The doc, from Hulu and Magnolia Pictures, is a stirring good time, a deeply informative revelation, and an all-encompassing reflection of a woman who succeeded, and thrives, in spite of her past.
The mark of a great documentary lies mostly in its subject. They need be intriguing to mass audiences with a high level of relatability and endearing sensibilities. This is exactly what White had on his hands with Dr. Ruth: a compact, Holocaust-surviving grandmother with a thick German accent who’s unabashed about sex and sexuality.
Ask Dr. Ruth begins near the top of 2018 amid a busy schedule for the once-dubbed “goddess of good sex.” Leading up to her 90th birthday, she’s shuffling across the globe, as a woman who won’t retire, she says, fulfilling speaking engagements, publishing books (three in 2018 alone), making television appearances, and writing advice columns. All of this is on top of teaching classes in New York at Hunter College and Columbia University.
An intimate rumination on her decades-long career, the film features interviews with people who’ve actually worked with her, from her “minister of communications” to the radio and television producers that helped her get on the air, and members of her family. In between those are archival clips of her appearances and interviews with the likes of Diane Sawyer, Arsenio Hall, and Howard Stern.
We also get a highlight reel of sorts of the extent of Dr. Ruth’s impact, particularly at the height of the AIDS crisis. At that time, she was known as “America’s sex therapist” and therefore the country believed whatever she had to say about the disease that was killing so many gay men. She helped shift awareness around HIV/AIDS, an issue she says she took serious because, as “a German, Jewish refugee” in America, she has a sensitivity to other communities also regarded as subhuman.
But the doc’s emotional heart comes in the form of Dr. Ruth’s reflections on her childhood, growing up in a Swiss orphanage away from her family as the Nazis carried out the Holocaust. To this day, she still has copies of the letters her mother would write and the diary she kept. Much of this time period of her life, and that of her best friend, is rendered in animation, by Neko Productions, and voiced by actors, punctuated with trips to Switzerland and to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel. Though I admittedly found the interspersed, albeit gorgeous, cartoons distracting and unnecessary, it does help to illustrate the extent of suffering and withdrawal Dr. Ruth and others in her situation might’ve experienced.
What we’re ultimately left to grapple with is the story of a woman who isn’t supposed to be here, a woman who beat the odds with an unspeakable charisma. Dr. Ruth’s life story is remarkable and worthy of Oscar-bait dramatization. Until then, the worthy gift that Ask Dr. Ruth is will do. It proves she’s worthy of a place in the history books, if not for overcoming her past, for helping generations to come get comfortable talking sex and sexuality.