(2019) Documentary (Magnolia/Hulu) Dr. 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