Starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, with Peter Sarsgaard, Chris O’Donnell, Timothy Hutton, John Lithgow, Tim Curry, Oliver Platt, Dylan Baker, William Sadler, John McMartin, Veronica Cartwright and Lynn Redgrave
Directed and written by Bill Condon
Rated R; 118 minutes
Bill Condon has achieved what I didn’t think possible: he has made what seems, on the surface, a dull film about sex. But the dullness of Kinsey is only skin deep, or rather, it’s a function of the film’s subject, pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. Kinsey was primarily interested in sex, both personally and professionally, not for its titillating or aesthetic or even particularly erotic aspects, but for what it revealed scientifically about the human animal.
Another reason Kinsey can be slow going to watch, but fascinating to think about and discuss afterwards, is that the film isn’t really about sex per se. Director-screenwriter Condon makes his subject Kinsey’s monomania about his chosen field of study; he shows us the man’s single-minded drive to make the study of sex scientific by collecting thousands upon thousands of case histories that really revealed the range of people’s drives, desires and activities.
Kinsey’s dedication is shown as necessary to overcome both society’s squeamishness in discussing sex, as well as the Puritanically proscriptive (mis)information that sometimes still passes for sex education, but it’s also a rebellion against his domineering, disdainful father (John Lithgow), a lay preacher who inveighs against the evils of fornication in the film’s opening scenes.
The problem is that watching another person’s obsession can be a bore. Kinsey works best when it shows the conflicts that obsession created in Kinsey’s inner circle; it’s less successful in showing how his obsession rocked and shocked the world at large. The film sets up a series of straw men who oppose or hamper Kinsey’s work without really giving them their due.
There’s a self-important anti-sex hygiene professor who gloats over Kinsey’s fall after his rapid rise (Tim Curry); the cowardly Rockefeller Foundation administrator who withdraws support when Kinsey’s findings become socially radioactive (Dylan Baker); and the friendly but ultimately ineffectual university president (Oliver Platt). All are fine actors trapped in one-dimensional parts. Only Lithgow’s portrayal, laced with sarcasm that masks his own pain, truly transcends the stereotype.
You can see Condon struggling not to fall prey to these and other clichés of the Dedicated Scientist film genre (a subset, like its siblings the Tortured Artist and Misunderstood Composer flicks, of the Heroic Inventor species). The recent Cole Porter biopic De-Lovely (Materially Successful but Unhappy Composer) also tried to shake free of the genre’s clichés but was ultimately done in by its own squareness.
In its Golden Age Hollywood, especially Warner Bros., cranked out Ded. Sci. pictures on a regular basis, and their tropes include the smug mockery by the hero’s fellow scientists, along with their certain reassurance that it’s folly to try to make milk safe to drink (The Story of Louis Pasteur) or find a cure for syphilis (Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet).
Typically there’s also an understanding wife (in this film, she’s expertly played by Laura Linney as Clara “Mac” Kinsey), who begs the hero not to work so hard. The straw men who oppose the hero’s work are often joined by an uncomprehending public that doesn’t appreciate the artist’s unique vision. As the great critic Pauline Kael once put it, these heroes suffer because they don’t know how famous they’re eventually going to be.
Another Ded. Sci. cliché has the hero meeting one person who has been helped by his invention/discovery. Condon uses the amazing Lynn Redgrave, as a woman who discovers her same-sex tendencies in middle age and thanks Kinsey for his writing, which helped her not feel like a freak. Redgrave (who also shone in Condon’s terrifically entertaining Gods and Monsters) almost makes it work.
At times, Condon achieves a good balance, letting his humor shine through while still alerting the present-day audience as to just how revolutionary Kinsey’s work was, and how important it continues to be. The 1948 publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male turned Kinsey overnight from a slightly scandalous Indiana University professor into a full-blown international phenomenon and ready-made pop culture reference. (The song “Too Darn Hot,” from Cole Porter’s 1948 musical Kiss Me Kate, contains the lyric “According to the Kinsey Report/Every average man you know/Much prefers his lovey-dovey to court/When the temperature is low.” Condon uses Ella Fitzgerald’s great rendition of the song over a montage of contemporary cartoons, including a hotel manager sarcastically asking a keyhole-peeping bellboy “Dr. Kinsey, I presume?”)
But these jokes got it wrong. What makes Kinsey ultimately fascinating is that he wasn’t pruriently interested in sex, nor was he judgmental about its wilder or more destructive twists and turns. The science of it, the cataloging of the immense variety of human sexual experience, was his turn-on, and he pursued it with the avidity that some people pursue sex itself.
For me, Kinsey works best when it digs into the emotional whirlwinds, both positive and negative, that sex can stir up. The film is clear-eyed about Kinsey’s own bisexuality; Neeson shares a passionate kiss with the excellent Peter Sarsgaard (who shone in a very different part in Garden State) as one of Kinsey’s researchers, Clyde Martin. Afterwards, when Kinsey tells Mac about the affair, Linney and Neeson show us the pain of two people who love each other but are bound to disappoint each other. I’ve had variants of this conversation with a significant other and it’s not pretty, but neither Condon nor the actors flinch.
There’s also a correspondingly amusing scene later, when the equally free-thinking Mac, who has accepted Kinsey’s quirks, also accepts the adorable Martin’s offer to sleep with her — to the chagrin of the hoist-on-his-own-petard Kinsey.
Still later, the emotional threads are pulled taut again. Kinsey has encouraged his researchers/acolytes (including Timothy Hutton and Chris O’Donnell) to sleep with each other’s wives, turning them, in essence, into a closely observed sex study group. Martin, who marries a woman and is eventually cuckolded by Hutton, finally explodes at Kinsey for turning them all into sexual guinea pigs. We’re brought up short, reminded of the pain that sex can cause.
Despite its variability, Kinsey is a powerful experience. Kinsey is portrayed as being somewhat blind to the societal implications of his research, and why they made so many people uncomfortable. The film’s strength is that it shows what Kinsey did understand about sex: the ways it both unites the human race and divides us. Sex is both so common and yet so taboo, even today — or should I say especially today, when the Puritan streak is growing wider by the day — that it can cause tremendous anxiety when our personal drives and desires seem anything other than “normal.” Neeson delivers a crucial line that sums up why Kinsey’s work remains so important: “Everyone is different, but most people want to be the same.”