At first glance, Ruthie and Connie seems to be a moderately engaging, warm-hearted, well-intentioned little documentary of a type that’s been done too many times to offer much that’s new. But while this is the sort of film you’ve seen before, there are specifics at work here that raise the interest level a notch or two above the ordinary.
First, there are the characters of Ruthie Berman and Connie Kurtz — a pair of charmingly outspoken elderly Jewish ladies who happen to be lesbians. Or alternatively, one might just as well say that they’re a couple of elderly outspoken lesbians who happen to be Jewish. In this case, those characteristics are roughly on equal footing, but there’s more: The women are also mothers, grandmothers and gay-rights activists.
What makes documentarian Deborah Dickerson’s film work is the methodical manner in which she unveils the different aspects of the two women — and the manner in which she deftly delineates the differences.
Wisely, Dickerson does this at the onset. She quickly establishes Ruthie as something of a follower of fashion — the kind that gauges her wardrobe and makeup entirely on professional advice regarding what “her colors” are or aren’t. Connie, for her part, chooses her clothing based entirely on whether or not she likes the colors. This seemingly small detail captures a good bit of the essential difference between the two women, and their different approaches to their shared story.
In some ways, it’s a familiar story — two persons of same-sex orientation who made an effort at a so-called “normal” lifestyle, only to finally find themselves unable to deal with the roles they’ve opted to play. But no one’s story is ever quite the same, and it’s necessary to look back at the time period in which this relationship came about.
Even as recently as 30 years ago, the decision to come out and go with their true selves was a heavy one — a shocking move that was apt to scandalize and appall neighbors, friends and family. It’s not surprising that one of them might have contemplated suicide, or that they both took what seems like absurd precautions to ensure that no one might come across any of their incriminating correspondence.
And, in one telling scene, the question of just how far we’ve really come since that era raises its head. At a gay-activist group meeting, a much younger woman admits to having tried to “hurt” herself rather than deal with the repercussions of her sexual orientation. The scene goes a long way toward defining a central issue concerning the question of “coming out” (which can, unfortunately, be altogether too much like Alfred Hitchcock’s famous anecdote about how a perfectly amiable mood could be quickly altered if you told the other person that there was a dead body in the next room).
Consider this scenario: A person you’ve long known suddenly tells you that he or she is gay. What’s your reaction? You’re with the same person, in the same room — nothing has changed that directly affects you. But does the atmosphere change? The answer to that question, of course, lies with the individual, and that’s something the film recognizes and deals with in powerful and disconcerting ways.
One especially potent moment comes in archival footage from the couple’s appearance on The Phil Donahue Show after they’d sued a school board for not allowing the benefits that are afforded married couples to go to same-sex partners (Ruthie is a teacher). The TV-audience reaction is nothing short of horrifying, especially when one audience member blasts the idea that Ruthie should even be allowed to be in the school system, where she can set an example for “impressionable” minds.
Sure, the footage is probably 20 years old, but would the reaction be any different today? Don’t be so sure. What’s interesting is to note that the audience doesn’t so much object to the fact that these women are lesbians, but to the fact that they aren’t in the closet about it.
It’s funny, but I had a sixth-grade teacher who was in a long-term lesbian relationship with another teacher (who I ended up taking a class from in ninth grade). I didn’t know about their relationship until years later, but I wasn’t in the least surprised when I found out. It certainly didn’t interfere with their teaching capabilities, and oddly, it turned out that most everyone knew about their relationship — but no one talked about it. It’s interesting to wonder what their status would have been, however, if they had talked about it.
The ability of the film to raise musings like this — along with its powerfully human portrait of Ruthie and Connie — is what makes it well worth seeing.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[In conjunction with the UNCA GLBT Conference, the Fine Arts Theatre will show Ruthie and Connie — along with the slyly comic short film, Hummer — at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 31.]