Like many of her generation who first encounter Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant, Dr. Ruth Westheimer gets the name wrong. No, not Alexis. She corrects herself.
“Alexa, who is Dr. Ruth Westheimer?”
Alexa responds, “Ruth Westheimer, better known as Dr. Ruth, is a German-born, Jewish immigrant to the United States who became a fixture on late-night television and a major pop-culture figure as a sex therapist, media personality and author.”
Dr. Ruth is clearly tickled.
“Did you hear? She knows who I am,” she says, chuckling. “OK. I think I’m going to keep her.”
And so begins “Ask Dr. Ruth,” a new documentary from director Ryan White, now airing on Hulu and playing in select theaters. Alexa only scratches the surface. The film offers an intimate portrait of the 4-foot-7-inch spitfire, from Holocaust survivor to sniper — yes, that’s right — to legend, including tender moments normally never seen. Like a reunion with her first boyfriend (the pair were just kids when taken by “kindertransport” to a harsh Swiss orphanage during World War II). Or debating the merits of feminism (a word she doesn’t like) with her granddaughter.
Fans can ask Dr. Ruth themselves when she appears at Huntington’s Cinema Arts Centre on June 19 for a sold-out birthday celebration (she turned 91 on June 4) that includes a showing of the film and talkback. She recently spoke to Newsday by phone.
You’ve worked hard to keep your private life private. But you revealed some details for an Off-Broadway play about your life in 2013. And now, with this film, you reveal a bit more. Are you becoming more open as you get older?
No. Don’t ask me any personal questions.
Oh, I won’t.
I knew if I agreed to do a documentary I’d have to give them some content that I didn’t talk about before.
You’re used to performing for cameras. Was it harder having a crew follow you around?
I had to remember this is not like my television program — I did like 450 [episodes] — but this is somebody putting a camera in my face all the time. I had to be very careful what I want to say, and what I didn’t want to say.
How’d you do?
I’ve seen [the film] now many times. And even I like it.
Are you a tough critic?
I certainly am.
The film even includes some animation.
I was worried. I didn’t want to be portrayed as Pinocchio or Mickey Mouse. But it’s beautifully done. Very sensitive.
It must be strange seeing your life play out on film.
It was difficult. It takes me back to the years of my childhood . . . and the fate of so many Jews, including my parents, who did not make it out of Nazi Germany. And today’s world makes it [more] difficult because when I see children separated from their parents, that’s my story.
Happy birthday, by the way. What do you think of your 90s so far?
Not bad. . . . The documentary is being shown in Japan, in Australia. And then I have these young guys like you asking me questions. Very nice. The movie is also having a premiere in Jerusalem in July. I go to Israel every year. I’ll be there. Maybe you’ll come with me.
I like that idea.
Tell your paper you want to go.
Is there anything about this stage of life you didn’t expect?
No. I’m just very fortunate. When I look back at my life, I can say Hitler and the Nazis are dead — and I’m alive. And I have four wonderful grandchildren.
They appear quite poised and articulate in the film. You must be proud.
Very. Not just proud. VERY proud. Underline it. [She chuckles.]
You moved around a lot , but settled in Washington Heights with your husband some 50 years ago. (Fred Westheimer died in 1997.) I gather you feel comfortable there. I see why. I recently moved there. I’m a neighbor.
Ha ha ha ha. All RRRRRRRight. You know where I live? You know the building? Don’t put it in the paper. Otherwise, everybody is going to come for coffee and cake.
Dr. Ruth in person and screening of "Ask Dr. Ruth"
WHEN | WHERE 7:30 p.m. June 19, Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington
INFO $70 (event is sold out); 631-423-7610, cinemaartscentre.org