It’s been a rather slow fall prestige film season thus far, with only one high-toned entry finding full traction–that would be Sideways–and other would-be’s failing to make much of an impression, such as Closer and Alexander. Given the various unmet expectations, it’s a perfect moment for the old-fashioned and inspirational Kinsey to find the audience it deserves.
The timing of Kinsey is fortuitous for another reason, as well. The hue and cry across America in the wake of the Nov. 2 election, from the gloating on one side to the gnashing of teeth on the other, has focused on the purported cultural divide in our land. After this last election, we’re left feeling as if we have two countries, each undiscovered by inhabitants of the other. Our great land seems as divided as the disputed territories of Israel and Palestine, with small-minded Bible-toting bigots squinting through the concertina wire at the mincing, coke-snorting homos. The beauty of Bill Condon’s Kinsey, however, is that it reminds us of a time before red and blue, before the cultural wars, when, we’re told, we were all clueless about our own sexuality.
Much of the coverage of this film has been of the sort that self-congratulatory liberals often engage in: See how much better things have gotten since the light of reason pierced the medieval gloom! Kinsey’s two books, the result of interviews with 18,000 subjects over 15 years, were surprise bestsellers and turned an obscure zoologist from Indiana University into an international celebrity. But it seems to me that the period of history in which Kinsey’s study emerged was perfectly poised for his startling revelations. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was published in 1948, in the brief golden post-war era of American prosperity, progress and good feeling. The color line was broken in baseball and in the armed services, polio was being scrubbed out, and Americans finally discovered that 92 percent of American men masturbate.
But the worm turned a mere five years later, when Kinsey’s companion study of female sexuality was released into the America of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Emmitt Till and the Rosenbergs. A paranoid, Cold War country terrified of subversion reacted badly to the news that nearly half of women were failing to bring their virginity to the bridal bed. Kinsey was denounced by Billy Graham, alive and righteous then as he is now. The genie was out of the bottle, and for all of the reactionary efforts of religious conservatives, out of the bottle it will remain. After Kinsey came Russ Meyer, the Pill, the Haight and Paris Hilton. But to blame the tawdry escapades of garbage celebrities like Hilton on Kinsey is to blame Nietzsche for Hitler. Nonetheless, Kinsey continues to attract critics from the right, as a brief tour of the Internet establishes.
Bill Condon’s film shows an America united in ignorance of its own most intimate behavior, and he celebrates Kinsey’s research as a source of information (and relief) to millions of Americans. In the course of his first two decades of scholarship at Indiana University, Kinsey had catalogued over a million gall wasps and concluded that each was unique. Similar but unique. Meanwhile, quite separately from his wasp research, he was asked to teach a marriage course at the college, a sex ed course for college kids about to enter matrimony. But in the course of preparing his lessons, Kinsey was horrified to learn that there was little scientific research available, and also that he, a scientist and an atheist, was expected to pass along misinformation and sermons. The year was 1938, he was 44 years old and had finally found his calling.
The film really hits its stride in the years when Kinsey and his small staff crisscross America, gathering data on human sexuality. There’s a marvelous montage of talking heads, all delighted to finally have permission to discuss their sexual beings. Meanwhile, the production design is similar to the loving period recreations of the overrated Far From Heaven, but the emotional tones are quite different. Where Far From Heaven insisted on exoticizing the recent past and indicting its inhabitants, the characters in Kinsey behave more or less as we do today. No spoilers here, but there’s a scene in a hotel room that’s more intense and more real than all of Julianne Moore’s dainty tears in Far From Heaven. (And it involves Neeson and Peter Sarsgaard. But no spoilers.)
As Dr. Kinsey, the 52-year-old Neeson achieves the remarkable feat of playing the earnest, humorless but endlessly curious workaholic from his mid-20s until the end of his life, some 35 years hence. Neeson makes the resolutely rational Kinsey charming in his obstinate honesty, partly with a crack makeup department and partly with an actor’s commitment to uncovering the drama of an outwardly undramatic personality. Early on in Kinsey’s teaching career, his students give him the oddly redolent name of Prok, a moniker that stays with him throughout his life. In Neeson’s hands, ol’ Prok is stern and kind, starchy and randy, populist and politically tone-deaf.
The film’s second most important character is Kinsey’s beloved wife Mac, gently and firmly played by Laura Linney. Fellow scientists and free spirits, Mac and Prok take a fast fondness for one another and marry quickly, after a nearly untroubled courtship. Still, one of the film’s most painful scenes is when this bright and likeable couple struggles with their abject ignorance of sex on their wedding night. But, they learn quickly and become quite adventurous; however, Prok’s obsessions will lead him to dark places all of his own.
Elsewhere in the cast, Timothy Hutton, Chris O’Donnell and the aforementioned Sarsgaard appear to good advantage as Kinsey’s researchers. John Lithgow also deserves mention for his success in transcending his thankless, baldly written role as Kinsey’s bitter, repressed and unkind father.
Although Kinsey has its share of bio-pic cliches, director Condon doesn’t make the mistake of overinflating his subject. Where the directors and stars of films like The Aviator and Alexander seek ego gratification in the guise of their impossible grandiose subjects, Neeson burrows down into the nerdy heart of Alfred Kinsey and finds heroism in his integrity, empathy and single-minded dedication to science. Condon also seems to have made a calculated decision to downplay Kinsey’s own sexual tastes, although he tells us what we need to know, particularly of an episode of self-mutilation near the end of his life.
Condon ultimately is more intereseted in Kinsey’s impact on the culture than in fetishizing the more sensational details of the doctor’s life. But the Kinsey shown in this film is so doggedly rationalist that he doesn’t fully appreciate the anxiety that sex produces. As the fallout from our recent election demonstrated, liberals pay the price for Middle-American unease with such varied cultural innovations as gay marriage and Internet porn (despite the fact that many Bush supporters sincerely believe in their own tolerance, an acceptance of the reality of sexual diversity that can be attributed to Kinsey). Indeed, Condon isn’t so gauche as to trumpet Kinsey’s achievement as an uncomplicated triumph for human freedom. Instead, it’s to his enormous credit that he ends his film on a melancholy note, with Kinsey struggling for funding in the hostile environment of 1950s America, much as Galileo ended his career in the papal doghouse and Darwin continues to be vilified in Op-Ed pages and on automobile bumpers. Condon’s vision of a lonely, principled and dishonored hero in the heartland may be just the thing Americans of all stripes could use right now. You might even say that Kinsey is the best heartland populist biopic since John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln.