If Dr. Ruth Westheimer weren’t around, Mel Brooks would have had to invent a character like her to bounce off of Carl Reiner. A pint-sized, thickly accented German-Jewish survivor of the Nazis who made us tune in to what turned us on, she became an unlikely pioneer in sex therapy and TV phenomenon in the 1980s, cheerily dispensing bedroom advice, sexual empathy and relationship tips.
Ryan White’s lively film about the still hard-working, ever-ebullient sexpert, “Ask Dr. Ruth,” isn’t her first movie starring role. (That would be the forgettable mid-80s French comedy “Une Femme ou Deux” with Gerard Depardieu and Sigourney Weaver.) It’s nonetheless a long-overdue bio-doc that, in its spirited way, is as affirming as last year’s paean to another important octogenarian Ruth, “RBG.” And much like how you hoped you’d live long enough to do planks in the gym like our venerable Supreme Court Justice can, you’ll watch the 89-year-old Westheimer bounding up steps and speeding down hallways in “Ask Dr. Ruth” and realize that that’s what an engaged life portends: inspired, ageless vibrancy.
Then again, are we surprised she’s still a petite powerhouse, busy enough with appearances, teaching, and book tours to keep her dedicated assistant of over 35 years from a desired retirement? She’s cagily mum on what her own sex life is like these days — she lost her beloved husband Manfred in 1997 and has successfully kept her privacy a non-topic ever since — but there’s clearly a communication corollary to her connecting healthy sex with longevity: whether you’re active or not, maybe just thinking and talking about good sex all the time keeps you alive and vital.
That positivity feels miraculous when you realize the pain Karola Ruth Siegel endured as a happy only child in Frankfurt, separated from her loving Orthodox parents by the Nazis taking power. Ensconced at a Swiss orphanage while the war raged, she dedicated herself to education, learning by moonlight from books surreptitiously given her by her first boyfriend, whom she visits in the documentary in a scene of incomparable warmth and reminiscence. (Of course, she remembers their first kiss.)
White’s choice of painterly, near-storybook animation for key moments in her turbulent childhood takes some getting used to, when surely her onscreen personality would have sufficed. But it’s an understandable aesthetic decision when elements of her life after learning of her parents’ fate include training as an Israeli Army sniper in British-occupied Palestine, and surviving a shell blast that almost prevented her from walking ever again. (Cue the handsome doctor she fondly recalls flirting into providing special treatment.)
In New York, she found her calling as a contraception activist and scholar of human sexuality, and after two failed marriages, landed a happy one with Manfred Westheimer, with whom she had two children. But it was her sex-education advocacy that caught the attention of WYNY-FM, earning her a 15-minute midnight call-in show meant to satisfy a public-service mandate and nothing more.
Three years in, however, “Sexually Speaking” was the city’s biggest hit, and by decade’s end, Dr. Ruth was a household name — a talk-show staple with a track record for embarrassing male hosts, and a good-natured sight-and-sound gag with a buoyantly rolling “r.” (Her “All r-r-r-r-right” is infectious.) But most importantly, she was a sincere cheerleader for sexuality as less a trap-laden bodily function than one of life’s great joys when respectfully tended to between consenting adults.
Though the 4-foot-7 dynamo has always lived in a personality realm that defies age and time — she’s your mother, your counselor, your devilishly humored friend, and with more reserves of energy than you’ll ever have — Westheimer definitely shows her age in one home scene when she horrifies her admiring daughter Leora by refusing to call herself a feminist, even though she believes entirely in the fight for women’s rights. (Don’t worry, Leora successfully argues her mother toward a logical, self-identifying victory.)
One can sense Westheimer’s reticence has more to do with a distaste for labels than specific politics, since she also hates the word “normal” when discussing sex issues, and in one of her more stirring comments, addresses her early championing of LGBT rights when the AIDS epidemic hit as stemming from a natural “sensitivity for people called subhuman.”
But it also speaks to the fascinating, cheerful blend of comically traditional façade and radical decency that is her bread and butter, like a superpower made of Old World grit and media-age star wattage. In this era of digitally enhanced cinematic crusaders saving planets, human-scaled portraits like “Ask Dr. Ruth” are the other, equally necessary type of fight-the-good-fight uplift, in this case also built from a tragic origin story, betterment saga, and well-packaged armor of charisma and helpfulness. When “Ask Dr. Ruth” is over, you’ll believe a human being can be as special as any computer-generated effect.