It's the 1980s, a time when people did a lot of coke and voted for Ronald Reagan. Pearl clutching was, as it is now, in full swing thanks to 2 Live Crew, Andrew "Dice" Clay, Howard Stern, and Dr. Ruth Westheimer. While most approaches to sexually explicit material were from a shock standpoint meant to entertain Cro-Mags like myself, a few out there were being sexually explicit for the sake of enlightenment. In hindsight, the happy munchkin of sex and her frank approach to things like contraception, sexual identity, STDs, and sex lives sneakily changed our approach to the formerly taboo subject.
Rather than wax poetic about what made the documentary Ask Dr. Ruth an enjoyable and insightful flick, I figured this time, like a spastic movie fan just emerging from the hallowed darkness of le cinema, I'd just mention a few of my favorite parts.
The celebrity montage
While it's now a staple in celebrity documentaries, it was still entertaining no less to watch a couple minutes devoted to our subject's ascent into pop culture. At the intro, we're treated to a litany of snippets featuring Arsenio Hall, Joan Rivers, Stern, and Conan O'Brien, as well as one with Robin Williams in all of his loud-shirted glory doing his best worst impression of her.
The staying busy montage
After the montage, we are treated to a few minutes devoted the busy schedule that is Dr. Ruth's life. There is no other way to say it. She stays busy. She teaches at two different colleges. She flies to Boston to speak at a summit. Speaks at the Air Force Academy. She still has a column in Time magazine. She's written over 40 books, a few of which came out just last year. She even has time to play what seems to be the role of queen at Charleston's end-of-year Renaissance Weekend.
Young lust crushes young love
In a brief scene, at a barn in Israel, Ruth recounts losing her virginity to a boyfriend's younger brother on top of hay bales and falling head over heels in love. Before too long, the relationship crumbles and she experiences the pain of a broken heart.
More than a Wikipedia documentary
One of my greatest concerns upon watching Ask Dr. Ruth was that we'd be treated to a formulaic celebrity documentary. We'd get the "look how popular our subject became" montage and then get what would amount to little more than a 90-minute Wikipedia entry. Director Ryan White's film stays out of that realm for the most part. There are definitely talk show clips and snippets from the height of her fame, but aside from that, little else that feels like a cinematic attempt to galvanize. Dr. Ruth's humanity is on full display as she recalls growing up as a Holocaust survivor that lost her entire family to the Nazis before ultimately emigrating to the United States.
At one point, the film cuts to Ruth showing off a political cartoon of herself comforting two sexually frustrated sabre-rattling world leaders. From there, granddaughter Leora Einleger comments on Westheimer's own aversion to being labelled a feminist despite her iconic status. "She will not discuss her politics in public. She has her views," Einleger says. "I don't think it's very hard to figure out her views but she really does not want any patient or fan of hers to feel like they can't trust her because of her political views."
A few quotables that stuck
Her longtime "Minister of Communications," Pierre Lehu laments, "I would love to retire, but Dr. Ruth won't retire."
During a WNYC radio interview with Jonathan Capehart, she pauses the proceedings to talk about one of her least favorite words, "normal."
"We don't know what normal is ...There is no such thing as normal."
In a clip from her appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, she observes, "Some men say that when they don't get what they want, the term is 'blue balls.' We should coin a new term so that can say, 'Honey, I need some more hugging and kissing and touching.' That term should be 'blue lips.'
Before recounting a lost love, she looks at a herd of cows and simply says "Mooooo."
At the film's conclusion she notes, "From my background, from all the things I have survived — I have an obligation to live large and make a dent in this world."
Ask Dr. Ruth — NR. Directed by Ryan White.