‘The happy munchkin of sex’

‘Ask Dr. Ruth’ and the allure of pleasure

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Dr. Ruth Westheimer, aka Dr. Ruth.


Let’s talk about sex. 

Or better yet, let’s talk about Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a 4-foot-7, 90-year-old Holocaust survivor who loves to talk about sex. For 40 years, she’s been “America’s sex therapist,” an honor she wears with pride. But Westheimer is more than a therapist; she’s a champion of sex-positivity. One newspaper called her “the happy munchkin of sex,” and a better description there is not.

And since documentaries of notable pop culture figures are all the rage these days, it only makes sense that Westheimer receive her own. But unlike the rest, Westheimer brings a warm helping of delight along with a lifetime of accomplishment. Though she has worked in radio and television for more than 40 years, Westheimer has no interest in pretending an entire film crew isn’t right in front of her and following her wherever she goes. She constantly talks to the camera and director Ryan White casually. Anytime she attends a benefit, Westheimer always makes sure the camera and sound operators got something to eat. When she leans in close to tell someone a secret, she makes sure to whisper it loud enough so the next-door neighbors can hear. She might as well wink into the lens, but that would be redundant. As Westheimer is fond of reminding her curious male clients: less is more.

It also benefits Ask Dr. Ruth that Westheimer has lived so many lives. Born June 4, 1928 in Germany to a Jewish family, Westheimer was shipped to a Swiss orphanage shortly following Kristallnacht and grew up in an idyllic landscape while her entire family was exterminated. Life is cruel, but it can also be beautiful, and at this Swiss boarding school, Westheimer met her first boyfriend — who is still alive and living in New York City during the filming of the doc; their reunion is one of the movie’s highlights. 

After Switzerland, two husbands came and went. They were “legalized love affairs,” in her estimation. Then came Fred Westheimer, Ruth’s “true love.” The two were married for over 35 years until Fred’s death in 1997.

This recount might make Ask Dr. Ruth sound like a blow-by-blow account of Westheimer’s life. It is, in some respects, but Ask Dr. Ruth is also the product of a cagey subject who knowingly holds White and the audience at arm’s length.

“I’m not going to tell you about who I’m seeing,” the nonagenarian slyly tells the camera. 

Same goes for politics and White obliges her, compiling the majority of the 100-minute doc from archival footage. White intersperses these segments with modern day footage of Westheimer traveling to Israel, to Switzerland and around Manhattan. There are two sides to every story, and two aspects of every person. Ask Dr. Ruth tries to understand both.  

ON THE BILL: 

‘Ask Dr. Ruth.’ Opens May 3. Landmark Mayan Theatre, 110 Broadway, Denver. May 15–18, Dairy Arts Center, The Boedecker Theater, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, 303-440-7825, thedairy.org

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