Kinsey

A big cock started an American revolution. That’s the wry premise of the comedic biopic Kinsey, anyway. In the early ’30s, zoologist and entomologist Alfred C. Kinsey (Liam Neeson) enters his marriage bed a virgin. His new wife, admiring student Clara “Mac” McMillen (Laura Linney), is also a virgin, and their first lovemaking is terrifying for him and agonizing for her. They visit a doctor, who gently asks how well-endowed Alfred is. Very well-endowed, it turns out. So the couple find positions in which penetration will be more comfortable for Mac, and they become blissfully sexual, producing three children (though the movie omits their firstborn, who died of diabetes at age four). Kinsey, a rigorous scientist with a bottomless hunger for the sensuous aspects of nature, can’t believe what passes for sex education: it’s moralizing disguised as science, condemning, essentially, any sex act that doesn’t result in children (masturbation, oral sex, homosexuality). He gets an idea: If he can conduct a study of human sexuality the same way he once scrutinized the evolution of the gall wasp, he might really be on to something.

The saddening thing about Kinsey is that it’s no longer as funny as it would have been just a few years ago. The poor, benighted Americans of the early 20th century, who take as gospel ridiculous hand-me-down theories about sex, are meant to be seen as almost another species — a breed of man and woman haplessly misinformed about such topics as the female orgasm and the supposed perils of pleasuring oneself. But there are still Americans, gripped with fear of the stirrings of their own genitals, who stand firm against any exploration of sex, whether in fiction or in fact. Years under an administration that doesn’t believe in stem-cell research or global warming, not to mention reproductive rights or gay marriage, prevent us from seeing the ignorant people in Kinsey as quaint echoes of the past. Alfred Kinsey (who died in 1956) is a figure shrouded in controversy to this day, and the movie, which lionizes him without denying his flawed humanity, may also be a lightning rod. All he ever wanted was to help people understand the act that leads to life, and he’s been smeared as everything from a propagandist to a child molester.

As written and directed by Bill Condon, whose previous film was another superb biopic (Gods and Monsters), Kinsey is a fast-moving mini-epic, spanning decades with no sweat, painting its intellectually blinkered era with deft strokes. Kinsey was bisexual — as the movie has it, he enjoyed a brief affair with one of his male assistants (Peter Sarsgaard) — and Condon, who’s gay himself, may be building a worthwhile career of gay-themed biographies. A large chunk of the film is talking heads, but what the heads are talking about guarantees our interest. Kinsey has a way of luring his interview subjects into a place of safety, where they can speak freely about what they do in their most private moments. It’s a wonder he got so many responses, though I imagine lots of people were dying to talk about this stuff to someone, in the hopes that they’d be told their proclivities were harmless or “normal.” Part of Kinsey’s point, of course, is that because everyone is different, there’s no such thing as normal. There are only harmful or unharmful acts, and harm is debatable.

Kinsey does, to its credit, delve into the subject of polygamy and its potential discontents. Having multiple partners is fun and fine in theory, but in practice, resentment or jealousy or insecurity can come into play, and people get hurt. But it’s not the sex that hurts, it’s the lack of communication and honesty about it. Kinsey also meets his opposite number, of sorts — not a prude (like his preacher father, played to bitter perfection by John Lithgow), but a cheerful libertine (William Sadler) who’s done everything sexual under the sun, including bestiality and sex with children, and brings this data to Kinsey in a spirit of intellectual sharing (and braggadocio, of course). One of Kinsey’s assistants (Chris O’Donnell) leaves the interview in disgust; Kinsey stays, but his disdain is palpable. Here before him is a man who has used sex as a license to please himself at the expense of countless men, women, children, and animals (twenty-two species, he claims). On the other end of the spectrum, towards the end of his life, after his second volume (on female sexuality) has been published and widely attacked, Kinsey sits down with a woman (Lynn Redgrave) who gives him heartfelt thanks for his work. Without it, she might have gone to her grave afraid and ashamed to find her true self as a woman who loves other women.

Liam Neeson may be uniquely suited to playing brusque, masculine historical figures who become saviors almost despite themselves (see his pitch-perfect work in Schindler’s List); he’s been rumored to be playing Lincoln in another upcoming biopic, and that will be something to see. Here, Neeson makes Kinsey something of a dweeb, a bow-tied insect-twiddler who falls sideways into sex research, becoming the unlikely figurehead for the sexual revolution of the ’60s and the subsequent rise in gay pride and feminism. Kinsey debunked Freud’s uncharitable assertion that clitoral orgasm was “immature”; his work led to homosexuality no longer being classified as a mental illness. In the movie, Kinsey is often obsessive, cracking under the considerable stress of his sudden notoriety. Towards the end, faltering from a heart condition, he all but demands that a rich benefactor bankroll his studies. He doesn’t have time for ignorance or for anyone who would question him. Neeson has a knack for playing heroes who can be assholes at times without being any less heroic, and he’s beautifully matched by Laura Linney, who deserved an Oscar just for the kitchen-table scene she plays with Neeson and Sarsgaard. Linney takes Mac far beyond the long-suffering, long-supportive wife role, though it helps that Bill Condon also writes her as a woman with her own intellect and inquisitiveness and wit.

Kinsey is gentler and more sedate than a decades-spanning movie about sexual inquiry would be expected to be; it’s not a debauched epic like Boogie Nights. Sometimes it comes off like a pristine PBS special, only with a few surprising slides of a penis entering a vagina. But emotionally the movie stays its course and gathers weight and meaning. The denouement, in which an elderly Alfred and Mac dawdle in a forest and admire the trees, speaks softly for the importance of laying down roots, which is the movie’s true subject — the reality of love and its unquantifiable subtleties versus the objective study of the act of love. Kinsey did great work, and moved society a lot farther forward a lot faster than some were ready for, and many of the later marches for freedom derived directly from his quest for knowledge. How sad, then, that almost fifty years after his death those freedoms, that knowledge, are still being challenged in some quarters by those who hide behind flags and Bibles.

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