‘Ask Dr. Ruth’
Documentary directed by Ryan White
Playing at Quad, The Landmark at 57 West, Kew Gardens Cinemas
Though only four feet nine inches tall, Dr. Ruth Westheimer is as towering a New York figure as the Empire State.
Try to imagine media culture of the last 40 years without her. The 90-year-old’s thick German-Jewish accent, infectious laugh and gentle approach to oftentimes difficult, embarrassing subject matter revolutionized radio, television and the sexual self-help industry. You could write a character like her in fiction, but no one would ever believe it.
Documentarian Ryan White embedded himself with Dr. Ruth for part of her never-ending public events calendar, and also got her talking about her remarkable history. What many may not realize is that she lived a rich life before finding — quite by accident — success in radio in the early 1980s.
Her parents sent her to Switzerland on a Kindertransport at the beginning of World War II. For years they kept in contact but eventually the letters stopped coming. (Only now, with White’s camera observing, does she get specifics of where and when the Nazis murdered them.) After the war she went to Israel and trained as a sniper, and was badly injured by an explosion.
These tales are visualized through animation, accompanied by Dr. Ruth’s narration. With each hardship, she immediately switches to the bright side, recalling old boyfriends and the adventure of youth. Her early marriages (there were three!) led her to Paris, then New York, where she still lives in a humble Washington Heights high-rise, and you should see her flirting with the doormen.
Working at a Planned Parenthood in Harlem, she got dragged onto a public affairs talk show, mostly because no one else felt like going. History was made. A tiny, Yoda-like figure speaking frankly about sex was, against all odds, an instant smash.
“Ask Dr. Ruth” features all the greatest hits (and a reminder of how progressive she was on AIDS), plus new moments of levity (like trying to figure out how Alexa works.) But don’t put Dr. Ruth in a box. Despite evidence to the contrary (and the consternation of her granddaughter) she refuses to call herself a feminist. She just doesn’t like labels.
This breezy film is as big of a crowd-pleaser as you’ll see all year, and a great testament to an independent, strong-willed woman with twin barrels of intellect and compassion. As ever, Dr. Ruth will get you talking.