LOS ANGELES – Dr. Ruth Westheimer isn’t done lecturing. And her subject isn’t limited to sex. At a press conference this past February for her new documentary, “Ask Dr. Ruth,” now streaming on Hulu, the renowned therapist scolded journalists huddled behind their laptops in the hotel ballroom.
“In my classroom, nobody sits with a computer,” said Westheimer, who turns 91 this week and still teaches courses at Columbia University and Hunter College. “My students have to talk to each other. I’m very concerned that young people are going to lose that ability. I’m going to write about it.”
It’s just one more item on her endless to-do list. Last year, she published three books, played queen at a medieval festival and spoke at the U.S. Air Force Academy. She also agreed to cooperate with “Ask Dr. Ruth” director Ryan White, who previously profiled tennis star Serena Williams and Freda Kelly, the longtime secretary for the Beatles.
Westheimer wasn’t always accommodating.
More than once, the movie shows her chiding White for posing “stupid questions.”
“You will never know how much money I have and you will never know with whom I’m sleeping,” she says near the end of the film, already receiving the kind of accolades bestowed upon 2018 hits such as “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” “Next question.”
She also makes it clear to White’s camera crew that the bedroom in her modest New York City apartment is off limits.
The film shows her being introduced before a radio interview, demanding her host say the word “sex” with more enthusiasm. She even talks back to her Alexa when the virtual assistant dodges Westheimer’s inquiry about whether she’ll ever have another boyfriend.
“If she doesn’t know that, what good is she?” Westheimer snaps.
‘Not just about sex’
During the February encounter with TV critics, Westheimer responded quickly to a question about whether there were topics she wouldn’t address.
“I can still throw hand grenades at journalists if they don’t ask good questions,” she said, referring to her tour of duty in the late ’40s as a sniper for the Israeli army.
Her words may seem harsh, but Westheimer delivers them with such charm that they come across like flirting. She may go after White in the documentary, but she also makes sure that he has plenty to eat and reminds him to call his mother.
Her ability to be simultaneously blunt and charming is a big reason why her 1980 radio show, “Sexually Speaking,” took off, launching her into the pop culture mainstream. She inspired board games, sitcoms and comedy routines. You hadn’t really made it as a talk-show host until Westheimer came on and made you squirm.
She may not be the rock star she once was, but her insistence that we get over our sexual inhibitions still has a role to play in today’s society.
“We’re going to introduce her to a whole new generation of viewers,” said Craig Erwich, Hulu’s senior vice president of originals. “Her belief in treating people with acceptance and kindness still, unfortunately, feels radical in 2019.”
Westheimer feels that today’s millennials need just as much counseling and support as Gen Xers once did, back when she was on the cover of People magazine.
“Today, most of the questions that I get are about loneliness, about not finding somebody to share your life with,” she said. “It’s not just about sex.”
Fleeing the Holocaust
While much of the documentary showcases Westheimer’s compassion and quick wit, it doesn’t shy away from her traumatic past.
As the only child of Orthodox Jews in Germany, she was forced to flee to a Swiss orphanage at age 10 when the Nazis took over. She never saw her parents again.
For those memories, White chose to rely on animation, a filmmaking tool used more and more to explore dark but highly personal territory. Inspired by pictures found in 1940s German storybooks, the cartoons accompany readings from Westheimer’s carefully preserved diaries.
“I didn’t want to do her childhood in an impersonal way where we were using generic footage from the Holocaust or World War II,” White said. “I wanted those moments to reflect her and her amazing voice.”
Cameras also follow Westheimer as she reunites with former housemates from her time in Switzerland and visits the Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem.
But even in these moments, the 4-foot-7 personality keeps her spirits up, not to mention a pace that would exhaust people 20 years younger.
“I tell everybody not to retire, but to rewire,” Westheimer said in February. “And I’m very fortunate in that I’m very healthy. I skied until just a few years ago. I admit my age, so I never have to cover it. And guess what? These days, I get to hold onto good-looking guys instead of walking with a cane.”
Ask Dr. Ruth
When and where: Now streaming on Hulu