Premiering at Sundance earlier this year, Ask Dr. Ruth screens at the Tribeca Film Festival this evening and will be available on Hulu starting June 1.
Watching Ruth Westheimer puttering about her Manhattan apartment, sweetly interacting with her grandchildren or laughing in amazement at her new Alexa, it is hard to remember that this sweet Jewish grandmother was once considered the most controversial figures in American society. First, as the host of late night call-in radio show giving frank – or what some would call explicit -advice for people’s love lives and then as a perennial favorite on the talk show circuit promoting the number of sex education books she wrote, Dr.Ruth combined honesty, compassion and a sense of humor in her mission to better educate peopleabut sex, a mission thatthe moralscolds of Reagan’s 1980s America were not happy with.
It is hard not to draw a parallel between this new documentary Ask Dr. Ruth and last year’s RBG, the documentary that profiled Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Both films take a nationally known woman and tell their life story, taking viewers through their trials and triumphs, charting their rise to their prominence in their respective fields. For Westheimer, it was her life in pre-Nazi Germany – both parents and her one grandmother were lost in the Holocaust – to her time living in the pre-Israel British Mandate and serving in the military during the 1947–1949 Palestine war to her immigration to America and the eventual start of her practice. And while neither film approaches the level of hagiography, Ask Dr. Ruth has the same level of affection for its subject that RBG did, and most likely will find similar success among audiences who flocked to see RBG.
Unlike its subject, Ask Dr Ruth is not a documentary that breaks any boundaries. It is a perfectly well-crafted profile of the woman’s amazing life and career. And that’s just fine. While many documentaries are investigative journalism or even just straight news reportage, Ask Dr. Ruth is like a cozy magazine feature piece. It tells its story in a straightforward manner. There’s no embellishment, no exploitation of its subject.
But within that story we can gain an insight into not just how one person can make an immeasurable impact on society, but we can see how she did it. Clips of her appearances on talk shows and of her own radio show reveal that her power was not in speaking about things that were considered taboo, but that she did so in a way that was conversational and normalizing, without ever moralizing or passing judgement on those who were asking for her advice.
At age 91, Westheimer states that she has no intention of slowing down. And the framework of Ask Dr Ruth shows her to be as vital today as she ever has been. It leaves one suspecting that we may be needing a sequel documentary in just a few years.