Kinsey / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()
After Mike Nichols’ Closer, Kinsey may just be the second worst date movie of the year. It’s not that the film, written and directed by Bill Condon, isn’t fascinating, or that the famed sexologist Alfred Kinsey wasn’t an intriguing subject. He is. It’s just that Kinsey, like the man on which it is based, is clinical, dispassionate, and … well, kind of icky. Like Ian McKellan’s portrayal of James Whale in Condon’s 1998 Gods and Monsters, Liam Neeson depicts Kinsey as a tragically flawed, human character, but probably not a guy you’d want to sit next to on a couch.
Early on in the film, we learn that Kinsey escaped the strictures of his repressive preacher-father (John Lithgow, reprising his role in Footloose), who condemned the invention of the zipper as an “avenue to lust,” to attend Bowdoin College and later Harvard, where he took to researching gall wasps with compulsive enthusiasm. At Indiana University, where he taught zoology, Kinsey became engaged to Claire (Laura Linney) and experienced a disastrous wedding night, discovering that he didn’t “fit” into his wife. It was the exploration of his sexual compatibility with Claire that got him pondering why there was so little information about sex, and led him into a lifelong study that ultimately reveals that he “fit” not only into his wife, but also into his research assistant as well as a healthy percentage of the men and women of the Midwest.
Soon after his sexual epiphany, Kinsey lost interest in the sexually incompatible gall wasps, and began teaching a marriage course, in an effort to dispel many of the protestant myths of the time, which included the beliefs that oral sex causes infertility, that no one masturbates, and that the only possible sexual position is of the missionary variety. While teaching the marriage course , Kinsey, with the assistance of his teaching assistant/boy-toy, Clyde Martin (Peter Saarsgard), realized that he could attack the study of human sexuality in much the same way that he had examined the wasps: by collecting information about the sexual lives of as many people as possible and grouping the results into definable categories.
Kinsey’s clinical single-mindedness was ideal for the study of sexual behavior — his indifference to moral judgments of prurient activity made him the perfect interviewer — but it was the same attribute that made him oblivious to human nature. His sexual research permitted him and his assistants (Chris O’Donnell and Timothy Hutton) to openly get their rocks off (including a bit of wife swapping) and get away with it by hiding behind the ‘science’ of sex (take note, future adulterers of America — become a scientist!). Of course, it was this warped psyche that allowed Kinsey to become the sexual maverick he was, because he not only learned from the behavior of his sexual partners, but from his own self-diagnosis.
In 1948, after years of collecting information, Kinsey rocked the world with his publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which revealed that 37 percent of men had engaged in some sort of same-sex sexual activity; he followed that up in 1953 with Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, which included the surprising revelation that some 50 percent of women had had sex before marriage. For the decade following Kinsey’s landmark publications, he was an academic rock star, hitting the lecture circuit and regaling his audiences with tales of prurient delight. But, alas, it was not long before the Kinsey backlash set in, spreading ultimately to the McCarthy-era Congress, which found a way to tie his theories to communism, and to those indomitable Red-Staters, who eventually pressured the Rockefeller Foundation to withdraw Kinsey’s funding, leading to his E! Hollywood demise, a downward spiral into barbiturates and alienation.
In addition to the brilliant Saarsgard and Hutton, the supporting cast includes surprisingly deft performances from Chris O’Donnell, Oliver Platt as the buoying, supportive President of Indiana University, Tim Curry as a priggish colleague, and Dylan Baker playing against type, yet ultimately Liam Neeson and Laura Linney steal the picture. Linney imbues Claire with kinky warmth, somehow humanizing Neeson’s awkward, intellectually earnest, creepy portrayal of Kinsey; and the two together are perhaps the most convincingly sweet openly adulterous couple I’ve ever seen onscreen.
The irony of Kinsey is that though Afred Kinsey’s work was pioneering and helped to begin the sexual revolution, eliminate pervasive sexual ignorance, and decriminalize homosexuality, Kinsey the man, (at least as illustrated by Bill Condon) had a way of bringing out my latent Puritanical nature. The dispassionate way he and his assistants experimented sexually (with grandmothers, even!), and studied their subject with such detachment (particularly the omnisexual Kenneth Brain (William Stadler), whose first sexual encounters were with his family members and an array of animals), stirred the missionary-positioned monogamist in me. Alfred Kinsey may be a guy whose work I can celebrate, but he’s certainly not a man with whom I’d want to shake hands.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.