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November 19, 2004

Alfred Kinsey finds out that hes a 2

Sex researcher’s challenges with his 1940s subjects are mirrored by the ones in his personal life

Alfred Kinsey was a contradiction in many ways. Coming from the Midwestern milieu of Indiana where sex is never spoken of openly, Kinsey went on to conduct the first comprehensive and candid study of human sexuality. The researcher, who was married and who advocated open relationships, fell apart when his own such relationships were revealed. The man who championed the idea of the spectrum of sexualities being normal was conflicted about his own bisexuality.

All these contradictions are boldly explored in the new film Kinsey. Writer and director Bill Condon won a screenwriting Oscar in 1998 for the acclaimed Gods and Monsters with Brendan Frasier and out actor Sir Ian McKellan. More recently he won another screenwriting nomination for his adaptation of the musical Chicago directed by out filmmaker Rob Marshall.

Condon now takes on the groundbreaking biologist-turned-sexologist whose 1948 publication, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, generated controversy throughout America and beyond. One of Kinsey’s greatest challenges was how to get the hundreds of male interview subjects to open up and speak freely about their sexual histories--something not easily done in the repressive postwar period. Kinsey’s 1953 female study was an even greater challenge.

Condon manages to do several things with Kinsey that are admirable. He takes clinical material, never exciting fodder for a film, and makes it relevant, moving and intriguing. He also juggles the personal story of Kinsey and his public struggles with depth and clarity.

Kinsey was the son of a dogmatic engineering teacher and Sunday school preacher, played by John Lithgow in a much too short cameo. Kinsey (Liam Neeson) rebelled against his father’s repressive upbringing. He became a Harvard-educated zoologist.

Then, while teaching biology at Indiana University, he met student Clara McMillen (Laura Linney) and they got married.

Kinsey began his work on human sexuality by recruiting a team of researchers. The most important of these were Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), Wardell Pomeroy (Chris O’Donnell) and Paul Gebhard (Timothy Hutton).

Among their groundbreaking findings were that 37% of the men interviewed had had at least one same-sex experience to the point of orgasm and that about ten percent had been exclusively homosexual for at least three years. Of this group, four percent were gay their entire lives. The 1953 study found smaller numbers in women: 13% had one same-sex experience, six percent had been exclusively homosexual for at least three years and 2% for their entire lives.

The researchers also found that there is a broad spectrum of sexual orientations, that many people are attracted to both males and females in varying amounts. To help describe this, Kinsey created a scale ranging from exclusively heterosexual (0) to exclusively homosexual (6).

Kinsey became a lightning rod with his two studies as well as for the way in which he led his private life. The way in which he was treated by the culture at large began to interfere with his sense of self and his worth as a professional and human being.

Liam Neeson, stunning in Schindler’s List, is back in great form and relishes this role from the first frame to the last. He is perfect for this role and should be a major contender for the acting Oscar this year. The film doesn’t shy away from Kinsey’s bisexuality and only an out director like Condon would have insisted on not sanitizing the sexuality of the film and its subject.

Laura Linney is once again headed for an Oscar nomination. She is delightful as Kinsey’s young lover and student and she is moving as a wife dealing with her husband’s contradictions as a man and a spouse.

Peter Sarsgard, who is building up an impressive body of work at a very young age, is intelligent and interesting as the bisexual Clyde Martin, who throws a few wrenches into Kinsey’s life.

Condon’s writing and directing is brisk and intelligent. He adds to his already impressive career a film that is one of the year’s best.

The film is not only an interesting template about a very important figure in human history, but it is also an amazing reflection of where we are today given that the so-called “values” played a large role in the re-election of Bush.

America’s ambivalent, even hypocritical attitudes towards sex and sexuality have always been a problem and in the rising tide of repression, these values and mores will continue to be an Achilles’ heel for the culture at large. The nation had a hissy fit when Janet Jackson’s boob was briefly bared at the Super Bowl, yet no one displayed  any moral outrage at the ample, wide-angle shots of cheerleader cleavage.

Kinsey was merely ahead of his time in the 1950s. Today, sadly, he would be way, way ahead of his times.


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