B+ Biographical documentary
Directed by Ryan White
Dr. Ruth Westheimer is such an interesting person that it’s surprising it took so long for someone to make a documentary about her. But after documentaries about Fred Rogers and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were commercially successful, it was time to celebrate the upbeat, witty, nonagenarian Holocaust-survivor who became famous talking enthusiastically about sex.
In the unlikely event that you don’t know anything about Westheimer (I’m tempted to call her Dr. Ruth, but it doesn’t seem professional), she’s a very short, elderly-but-healthy German-Jewish sex therapist who’s been famous since the early 1980’s. She’s extremely sex-positive and appears to enjoy her work. Better yet, just look her up on YouTube.
Director Ryan White follows the general rules for this type of documentary. Since the subject is still alive and lucid in her old age (the film includes her 90th birthday), she mostly narrates her own story. The narrative of her life is broken by television and radio clips from her long (and still going) celebrity. Those clips help leaven the stories of her extremely frightful adolescence.
In 1938, her parents managed to send her out of Germany to Switzerland, where she lived in a very strict orphanage, with the intention that she would become a housemaid. A minor infraction could have sent her back to Germany. The rest of her family died in the Holocaust.
She had two failed marriages (she called them “legal love affairs”), came to America, and on the third try, married the right man. She got a doctorate in human sexuality. In 1980, her work with Planned Parenthood got her an unpaid gig talking about sex on the radio. The show became a hit and she became a star.
The documentary visualizes much of her pre-fame life through simple and inexpensive animation – a technique becoming common in recent documentaries. White uses a clever transition to go from reality to illustration. He shows us a black-and-white photo of the young Ruth before she was separated from her family. The photo morphs into a color drawing that soon begins to move. From then on, we accept the animated Ruth.
Westheimer comes off as the ultimate warm, loving Jewish mother who wants everybody to be happy. But this particular Jewish mother wants everyone to be happy not because of all the food on the table, but because they’re all having great sex. Except when talking about the Holocaust or her husband’s sudden death, she glows with happiness. She still lives in the same New York apartment she lived in when she and her husband were struggling.
How much of that is a show? I know for a fact that she has used ghost writers. The documentary gives only a few seconds to another sex therapist who makes a good argument against her watch-it-on-TV therapy. But it’s clear that many people have found sexual happiness through her advice, and far more have simply enjoyed listening to her often-graphic but always enthusiastic suggestions.
And if nothing else, the film and its subject are both entertaining.