Starring Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris O’Donnell, Timothy Hutton, John Lithgow, Tim Curry, Oliver Platt, Dylan Baker, Julianne Nicholson, William Sadler, John McMartin, Veronica Cartwright, Kathleen Chalfont, Heather Goldenhersh and Lynn Redgrave.
Screenplay by Bill Condon.
Directed by Bill Condon.
Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures. 118 minutes. Rated R.
Before Alfred Kinsey, the common beliefs were that masturbation could cause blindness, homosexuality was a sign of insanity and intercourse should only be practiced by married couples, only in the missionary position, and only in an attempt at procreation. Well, perhaps beliefs is a strong word for it, but that was the company line and the world stuck to it. Any suggestion that sex was recreational or even for pleasure were derided as evil, amoral, even communist.
Kinsey was an odd choice of fate to open our eyes to the diversity of sexual behavior. Truth is, he started his groundbreaking studies precisely because he was as confused as the rest of us. He was the son of an extremely “moral” man, a fire and brimstone believer in proper living who was completely intolerant of any personal vices. Alfred had been a sickly child who spent much of his early years stuck in bed. He was still a virgin when he married at 26, and at the time he started his studies he had never had sex with anyone except for his wife. He was a zoology professor by trade, not a psychology professor. His specialty was entomology; he tirelessly studied and cataloged the gall wasp, an odd breed that could not fly. He was fascinated by them because no two were alike, in fact most were shockingly different from their relations.
This movie biography looks at the turns of fate that led Kinsey from being a quiet man chronicling bugs into the world’s foremost sex expert. It shows Kinsey (played to perfection by Liam Neeson) to be an imperfect man; he was a complete workaholic, he was rather callous when it came to people’s feelings and he often overlooked the way that sex can be a sensitive subject to people, particularly in the 1940s. He tried to be completely detached from the findings of his studies. It was scientific research, pure and simple. (“We are the recorders and reporters of facts – not the judges of the behaviors we describe,” he insisted.) This made him a good interviewer, people could open up to him and know that he was not looking down on them. On the other hand, it made him a bit off the mark as well, he almost never considered the emotional aspect of the sex act.
This often caused grief for his long-suffering wife (Laura Linney) and his family. He also did not recognize the danger of allowing his three assistants (Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton and Chris O’Donnell) and their wives to become too involved in the studies. Kinsey’s single-minded devotion to his work led to the revolutionary 1948 book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male which changed the way the world looked at sexuality and even changed national policy. (Kinsey’s findings are greatly responsible for the removing of laws outlawing homosexuality.)
Other books he wrote were similarly groundbreaking but starting with the follow-up Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Kinsey’s studies were more and more attacked, leaving him open to charges of avarice, smut-peddling, perversion and even communism as he was targeted by the McCarthy hearings. He lost much of his support, both financial and academic. As the world became more resistant to his findings, and as a constant work schedule led him to barbiturate addiction and a predilection for lecturing and hectoring anyone he met.
The movie shows Kinsey for the flawed man that he was and makes him all the more interesting for it. The acting here is at an all-star level, with Neeson, Linney, Sarsgaard and the others all turning in spectacular work. In the end, the movie realizes that Kinsey was a brave and driven man who was willing to sacrifice anything to further science. This single-mindedness may have made him difficult to live with, but it also made him able to change the way the world thinks about their bodies and desires.
Kinsey’s findings were surprisingly controversial; his critics acted as if Kinsey created these sexual proclivities, not just reported on them. It is probably not a coincidence that this film is coming out in the wake of America’s return to the quote-unquote new morality of the Bush years. Not unexpectedly, almost fifty years after Kinsey’s death (he died in 1956), this film is inspiring an all-new attack from the religious right on Kinsey’s work. Which is strange, because more than anything, Alfred Kinsey’s studies were based on the premise that knowledge was far preferable to ignorance. For better or worse – for good, bad, or ugly – human behavior can’t be understood if it is ignored. The movie Kinsey shows that the world has come a long way since the repressed 40s and 50s of Kinsey’s greatest notoriety; and yet in many ways things have not changed much at all. (11/04)
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2004 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: December 24, 2004.