Full Frame Review: Ask Dr. Ruth

Back in the ’70s during the sexual revolution, it seemed like the only “information” on how intimacy was found in the book How to Pick Up Women, the memoirs of the Happy Hooker and the letters in The Penthouse Forum. Salacious seemed to be the big selling point as this post-prudish perspective took hold in America. Things changed when Dr. Ruth Westheimer arrived on the scene. She gave realistic information that didn’t insist you turn the act of intimacy into a Chinese acrobats routine. She quickly became the expert on sex with her appearances on every talkshow. Her books were bestsellers without being hidden in brown paperbags. She even got her own talkshow with celebrity guests bringing up personal issues. Unlike some flash in the pan stars that remained in the ’80s, Dr. Ruth is still sought out for advice because she’s not media creation. Ask Dr Ruth gives a deep insight into her life and the energy that keeps her going strong at 90.

The movie covers Dr. Ruth’s early years in Germany. She had a nice middle class life as a youth until Hitler took power. Then things went bad fast. Her father was taken away to a work camp. Somehow he gets Ruth sent to Switzerland to an orphanage. But it’s a complicated place where even though she’s a child, her job is to take care of the Swiss orphans. While she is there, she loses contact with her mother, father and grandmother. She has no one in her life except her friends she’s made in the orphanage. While Ruth narrates, the action is carried out with animated sequences to illustrate these lonely days. One powerful moment is how a boyfriend allowed her to study high school classes at night using his books. In the present time, she visits him and lets him know once more how much he meant to her life.

Ruth’s original radio career was pretty complicated. She took the gig on a New York City radio station, but the station management was scared of the callers. People would call in earlier in the week so the entire show could be approved by all the front office folks. Even though it was given a late night Sunday slot, very quickly the show garnered ratings that rivaled morning shows in the Big Apple. Eventually she got to go live and take callers on the air. One of the big messages she spread was that there’s nothing wrong with sex if it’s between consenting adults. This was during a time when there were a lot of people using the religious right to sex shame and get people back in the closet or tortured during conversion therapies. She did also remind people to use safe sex techniques. This also horrified a lot of people who wants people to ignore their libidos. The amazing thing about Dr. Ruth is that she is an expert. She earned a doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is also an expert from her own experiences. She discusses her two marriages before she finally met Fred Westheimer. She speaks of how this was her true marriage. That sometimes we are in relationships that weren’t meant to last that long. When she talks to callers, she’s able to talk from experience as well as research.

Director Ryan White (Good Ol’ Freda) and his crew gets deep into Dr. Ruth’s life. She’s more than a diminutive woman with a German accent that Johnny Carson impersonated. During the course of 100 minutes, you realize her importance in the world even with just her simplest messages. Ask Dr. Ruth is almost a sequel to last year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? about Mr. Rogers. They are both about people on TV who wanted viewers to be better to themselves and others.

After the screening at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Dr. Ruth took the stage to talk and take a few questions. Her energy lit up the room. It’s hard to believe she’s 90 although we’d just seen proof of it on the big screen. After she left the stage, people walked out of the theater smiling. She still has that magic.

Ask Dr. Ruth opens May 3 in theaters across the country. This is a fine movie for consenting adults.


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