Ask Dr. Ruth


Dr. Ruth peers out of a train window at her oncoming past.

(2019) Documentary (Magnolia/HuluDr. Ruth Westheimer, Pierre Lohu, Joel Westheimer, Cliff Rubin, John Lollos, Lee Salk, Greg Willenburg, Walter Nothmann, Debbie Nothmann, Leora Einleger, Jonathan Capehart, Dallah “Marga” Miller, Shmil Boruchovitz, Betty Elam Brauner, Mina Westheimer, Maurice Tunick, Michael Leckie, Avi Einleger, Jeffrey Tabak, Susan Brown. Directed by Ryan White

 

For most of us, our first sexual experiences are great mysteries preceded by sheer terror followed by an absolute sense of wonder why on earth we had ever been scared of what was such a natural – and pleasurable – act. Generally before going in and learning by doing, our knowledge of sex is woefully light.

Talking about sex just was not – and to a real extent is not – done. After all, who the hell are you going to ask? You really can’t talk to your parents or adult authority figures about it and your friends and peers know less than you do.

And then in the 80s came along Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a 4’7” dynamo who spoke frankly about masturbation, vaginas, dildos and gay sex in a charming German accent. She promoted good sex in ways that were frank, no-bullshit and direct. Yes, we would all blush like high school freshmen when she spoke of proper stimulation of the clitoris or about how tying up your partner wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. She was one of the first proponents of sexual acceptance; there is no normal sexuality, just whatever turns you on and that’s your business and nobody else’s other than your sex partner.

Suddenly she was a pop culture icon; authoring dozens of books, hosting a crazy popular radio show and a fixture on late night talk shows. She conversed regularly with Johnny, Conan, Letterman and Arsenio. She was everywhere for a certain amount of time, a kind of brilliant grandmotherly sort who talked about the things none of us would ever talk to our grandmothers about. And, despite fame and wealth, she chose to live in the same Washington Square apartment she’d lived in for decades. She lives there still.

This documentary looks at an amazing cultural phenomenon that was and is Dr. Ruth who is still going strong at 90 years old plus. White follows her around in the days leading to her 90th birthday as she goes on a voyage into her past; back to Frankfurt where she was born, and to Switzerland where her mother and grandmother sent her as part of the kindertransport program that got young Jewish children out of Germany as the Nazis rose to power. She was sent by herself to a Swiss orphanage where she shined shoes and did chores; she wasn’t allowed to attend school at the time. Her only learning came from a former boyfriend who would allow her to read his schoolbooks after dark.

Much of her early story is told through animations here where she is portrayed as a sad, melancholy little girl and of course she had good reason to. She voraciously corresponded with her parents until the letters ominously stopped coming. It wasn’t until recently that she discovered the fate of her parents and grandmother, whom she adored. White’s cameras witness her research and it is a very powerful moment indeed. The animations are beautiful but they are a bit tone-deaf when compared to the big picture.

After the war Ruth went to Israel where she was trained as a sniper (!) until an explosion put shrapnel into her legs. She eventually went to get an education in Paris before moving to New York City where she got a doctorate, despite not having completed high school. She married three times and raised kids. She volunteered to do a radio spot about sex therapy which proved to be wildly popular and thus the legend of Dr. Ruth was born.

Throughout the film we journey back with Dr. Ruth to places significant to her in her past, from Switzerland to Israel to New York. We see that even pushing 90 years old, she remains a force of nature – lecturing, writing and teaching a pair of college classes. She continues to preach the gospel of good sex with her charm unabated despite her years.

Although Dr. Ruth prefers to leave politics out of her message, her message is in many ways political in and of itself, advocating tolerance for lifestyles different than your own, equality for women in the bedroom (and by extension, everywhere else) and that what a woman does with her body is her own business and nobody else’s. Her granddaughter tries to get her to admit to being a feminist but when her grandmother does not, is somewhat taken aback and even a little bit hurt by it. The thing of the matter is that while Dr. Ruth doesn’t consider herself a feminist, she has had a massive effect on the feminist movement.

It’s interesting to me that Dr. Ruth is, in many ways, less in touch with her own emotions than she is with everyone else’s. She does play things very close to the vest and while she’s open and candid about many of the events of her life, we get a sense of distance from who she really is as a person. For the most part all we see is the public persona of the famed sex therapist and perhaps that’s enough, although I might have wished for more.

Still in all, this is a well-made, well-researched documentary on a public figure who really hasn’t gotten her due in many ways. Because she talked so candidly about sex, there was a tendency not to take her as seriously as her accomplishments merited – too many jokes on Carson and Letterman perhaps contributed to that. While the overall tone might be a little bit more worshipful than I would have liked, nonetheless this is a fairly thorough examination of one of the most important pop culture figures of the last thirty years. Besides all that, her energy, her pixie-like sense of humor and her sheer good will are very energizing even on a TV or movie screen; this is certainly a worthy tonic for those in need of a pick-me-up.

Orlando readers will have to drive out to the Cinematique in Daytona in order to see this on the big screen; readers in South Florida are more fortunate in that the film is playing in various places around the region including the Miami Dade College Tower Theater and the Living Room Theater at Florida Atlantic University. It is also available at the Movies of Delray Beach and the Movies of Lake Worth while in the Tampa area it can be seen at the Tampa Theater downtown and the Burns Court Cinema in Sarasota. It is also playing in several other theaters around the state – check your local listings. If you don’t live close to any of those theaters, you’ll just have to wait until June 1 when the film will debut on Hulu.

REASONS TO SEE: The energy and humor of Dr. Ruth are infectious. Some of the moments here are devastating.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film is a little bit hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as frank sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ruth Westheimer was born Karola Ruth Siegel in Frankfurt back in 1928; she started using her middle name Ruth following the war.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kinsey
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Clara

The Night Listener


The Night Listener

Sometimes Robin William's ad-libs get on Toni Collette's nerves so much she wants to strangle him.

(Miramax) Robin Williams, Toni Collette, Sandra Oh, Joe Morton, Rory Culkin, Bobby Cannavale, John Cullum, Lisa Emery, Ed Jewett, Becky Ann Baker, Joel Marsh Garland. Directed by Patrick Stettner.

Our view of reality is really made up of a series of perceptions, not all of them ours. Very often we believe something to be merely because somebody told us that it was, be it the media, a friend or a loved one. Just because we are told something is so doesn’t necessarily make it so, no matter how much we may want it to be.

Gabriel Noone (Williams) is a radio personality on NPR, and one of the most popular on the airwaves. His late night show “Noone at Night” mainly consists of Noone telling tales about his life, concentrating on the eight-year struggle of his partner Jess (Cannavale) with AIDS. As a result, he has become a hero to the gay community and a well-respected raconteur everywhere else, a kind of gay Garrison Keillor.

As successful as he is, he is having all sorts of problems at home. His relationship with Jess is disintegrating, and it’s tearing him apart. Unable to get past his grief and pain, he is unable to do his show. Ashe (Morton), a friend of his in the publishing industry, in an effort to cheer him up hands him an unpublished manuscript of a book that his publishing house is about to put out, about a courageous young boy named Pete (Culkin). Pete grew up in a household of abusers who put him through the worst kind of tortures imaginable. Little more than a sex toy, he was eventually rescued and later adopted by a sympathetic social worker named Donna Logand (Collette), but by this time the boy had contracted AIDS.

It turns out that Pete is a big fan of Noone’s radio show, and the two strike up a series of conversations. Noone comes to admire the boy’s courage and spirit. He is in the final stages of the disease now, in the hospital more often than he is at home. The boy’s fight slowly brings Noone out of his shell of despair.

However, something is not quite right. When Jess finally gets to talk to both Pete and Donna, he notices that their voices sound alike. Upon further examination, it turns out that nobody has ever seen Pete—only Donna. Gabriel’s research assistant Anna (Oh) does some digging and can find no records anywhere of a situation even remotely resembling that of Pete Logand. When Gabriel talks to Donna about his misgivings, she has an explanation for everything. Still, the misgivings persist and the publisher eventually decides to delay publication until they can get to the bottom of things.

Gabriel is torn. He wants to believe that Pete exists, but he has doubts and yet if he is real, then he just helped kill the dream of a dying boy. Wracked by guilt, Gabriel decides to go to Wisconsin to ascertain the truth for himself.

The novel that this movie was made from was in turn based on the story of Anthony Godby Johnson, the “author” of the book “Rock and a Hard Place” and who victimized such people as Oprah Winfrey, Mister Rogers, Keith Olbermann and novelist Armistead Maupin, author of The Night Listener. I thought it interesting that Maupin gave his lead character the name of Noone—or no one. Clever, don’t you think?

Williams, who it now can safely be said is one of the more gifted actors working, takes on the role of a gay man riding an emotional roller coaster. There is a great deal of sadness in him but also a good deal of resolve. He isn’t a typical hero for a thriller, clearly conflicted about his own doubts. He really needs to believe, but can’t quite bring himself to.

Ever since she first came to my attention in The Sixth Sense Toni Collette has continued to impress me more and more. She is taking on roles that challenge her and stretch her nearly every time out and she has the ability to take a role that has little substance and make it something better. She is given a lot more to work with here, and she is magnificent.

Director Stettner, on only his second feature film (The Business of Strangers was his first) shows a sure hand. The pacing is steady and unrelenting. There is not a bit of wasted business. He also makes some intriguing choices. For example, he shows Donna early on in the movie to be well dressed, good looking, competent and confident. When Gabriel finally meets her she is frumpy, plain and unpredictable. The idealized Donna is what Gabriel imagined her to be; the reality turns out to be a bit different.

This is a well-written, well-acted drama…er, thriller…ok both. I was pleased to see the gay characters portrayed as people whose sexuality happens to be of that orientation. Too often gay characters in the movie are flamboyant queens (and Williams bears some responsibility for this here) who can’t really be taken seriously. Gabriel Noone is a serious character, flawed and over-emotional sometimes yes, but with a heart as big as a buffalo and a mind to be reckoned with. Maybe that will be what The Night Listener is remembered for in the long run.

WHY RENT THIS: A competently executed thriller/drama whose main characters are gay men whose sexuality is merely a part of their personality. Williams and Collette give solid, grounded performances. There are a lot of subtleties in the movie that are delightful upon further reflection.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Noone behaves inconsistently from time to time which while making him a more realistic character can sometimes be annoying to the viewer.

FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing sexual content, as well as some fairly rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The real-life husband of writer Armistead Maupin plays Jess’s friend Lucien, whom Noone refers to as “Lucifer.”

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Sukiyaki Western Django