LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX.
Bill Condon, the man who once made a dreary sequel to Candyman (1992), has grown into quite a sophisticated filmmaker. He prepared for this film by interviewing the old colleagues of Alfred Kinsey’s, much like the noted biologist himself had conducted interviews in preparation of his two books on sexuality in America. As a result, the film is close to what happened in those days and it paints a convincing portrait of the resistance Kinsey faced and the personal problems he tried to overcome.
In the beginning we see how Kinsey’s (Liam Neeson) childhood shaped him as a person. His father, Alfred Seguine Kinsey (John Lithgow), was a destructively conservative Methodist pastor who raised his son in a way that made him rebel (and eventually turned him into an atheist). Kinsey wanted to become a biologist and in 1914 he started attending Bowdoin College where he studied gall wasps. His nerdish demeanor hardly endeared him to women, but Clara McMillan (Laura Linney) fell in love with him nonetheless. They wed in 1921; neither one of them had had sex before marriage and the wedding night became an embarrassing, painful experience. Kinsey, ever the scientist, suggested they get professional help; they did and that became the start of a sexually very satisfying marriage.
As he started teaching biology, Kinsey became more interested in human sexuality and saw what damage the conservative climate of the day did to young couples who remained laughably and even dangerously ignorant about sex. He managed to get funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and embarked on the ambitious project that would make him the father of sexology, resulting in two highly controversial books on male and female sexuality. But as Kinsey’s work became as obsessive as his gall wasp studies, he failed to realize how easily feelings were hurt in the process.
Potentially devastating experiments
I remember how American conservatives on Fox News were busy in 2004 complaining about a movie being made about that “pervert” Kinsey. Times may have changed, but those people still refuse to acknowledge Kinsey’s standing as a prominent scientist.
As for the film itself, Condon’s script does address controversy as it specifically shows how Kinsey’s concept of sexual freedom clashes with normal, expected feelings of other human beings; he gives the impression of not understanding why his wife is upset when he explores sex with a young, male assistant (Peter Sarsgaard). The frankness and curiosity surrounding his work and his colleagues also give rise to uncomfortable and potentially devastating experiences. The film shows how strong the resistance was to Kinsey’s work, but it was worth it; times change indeed, but the good professor was actually one of the few individuals who made them change in a good way. There is a very moving sequence near the end where a woman (beautifully played by Lynn Redgrave) tells Kinsey how his work saved her life; to him, it must be confirmation that he’s done something right.
Neeson is convincing in his journey from nerdy bug collector to sick, frantic idealist; Tim Curry contributes comic relief as his academic enemy and it’s fun watching Lithgow as the father (is he doing the priest as a homage to his character in Footloose (1984)?).
As a biography, it’s a pretty conventionally told story but the content remains controversial and explosive, at least in conservative societies. We should be thankful that someone set the record straight when it comes to sex and started educating the rest of us.
Kinsey 2004-U.S. 118 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Gail Mutrux. Written and directed by Bill Condon. Cast: Liam Neeson (Alfred Kinsey), Laura Linney (Clara McMillan), Chris O’Donnell (Wardell Pomeroy), Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton, John Lithgow… Tim Curry, Oliver Platt, Veronica Cartwright, Lynn Redgrave, John Krasinski.
Trivia: Francis Ford Coppola co-executive-produced the film.
Quote: “Everybody’s sin is nobody’s sin, and everybody’s crime is no crime at all.” (Neeson)
Last word: “There’s a pervasive discussion of sex in the film and I didn’t know what we would do if the ratings board took a hard line on that. But we gave them the film and at the end of the day they called up and said, ‘We’ve had a long discussion and we’re giving you an R. And thanks very much, we learned a lot.’ I think they’re getting a sense of humour in their old age.” (Condon, Film4)