Sundance Film Review: ‘Ask Dr. Ruth’

Variety | 2/2/2019 | Amy Nicholson
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In Ryan White’s breezy documentary “Ask Dr. Ruth,” the 90-year-old Ruth Westheimer asks a fair share of the questions. “Are you hungry?” “Are you sure you’re not hungry?” And with her grandmotherly credentials thus verified, she’s free to turn to her Alexa and ask it to find her a boyfriend. Alas, the app demurs. “If she doesn’t know that, what good is she?” the doctor tuts of the AI program. Not good enough to do what Westheimer did: leap from being a licensed sex therapist with a risqué 15-minute radio call-in show into a national sensation with six TV programs, more than three dozen books, and countless talk-show appearances in which she’s used her no-nonsense charm to, among other things, needle Arsenio Hall into saying the word “****.” Dr. Ruth denies she’s political — she even says she’s not a feminist — but that moment on Arsenio was a political act. Men needed to recognize female pleasure, especially men like Hall who constantly alluded to the male organ on his show, yet squirmed when Westheimer changed the focus.

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Dr - Ruth - Career - White - Years

When it comes to Dr. Ruth’s career, White is most interested in the early years of her notoriety, and for good reason. Her frankness was so startling that an Oklahoma man attempted to put her under citizen’s arrest. And her rise to fame came at the same time as the AIDS epidemic — then called “sex cancer” — which meant she had to parry panicked questions about whether the disease could be caught from sharing sodas. Westheimer did her best. Where she was exceptional was in her refusal to stigmatize homosexuality. Whatever consenting people did in the privacy of their own home was their business, a position she championed more than a decade before acceptance was mainstream.

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