Director : Bill Condon
Screenplay : Bill Condon
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Liam Neeson (Alfred Kinsey), Laura Linney (Clara McMillen), Chris O'Donnell (Wardell Pomeroy), Peter Sarsgaard (Clyde Martin), Timothy Hutton (Paul Gebhard), John Lithgow (Alfred Seguine Kinsey), Tim Curry (Thurman Rice), Oliver Platt (Herman Wells), Dylan Baker (Alan Gregg), Julianne Nicholson (Alice Martin), William Sadler (Kenneth Braun), John McMartin (Huntington Hartford)
One of the greatest misnomers about American cultural is that sex was nonexistent in the 1950s. Based largely on collective memories of unrealistic, squeaky-clean television shows like Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best and women's magazines that were much more obsessed with new kitchen appliances than activities in the bedroom, many people seem to think that the Eisenhower era was neutered and controversy-free. It's no wonder that right-leaning cultural critics always look back wistfully at that time as the model of what they think we've lost.
But, look again at the 1950s and dig just a little beneath the surface, and you will immediately find the roots that eventually grew into the sexual revolution of the late 1960s. After all, the 1950s produced the nonconformist and often highly sexualized beat poetry of Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, not to mention Playboy magazine. It was the first time in which gay subgroups began forming a collective identity, and even though the movies were still pretty tame by today's standards, directors like Douglas Sirk were infusing seemingly benign melodramas with a barely disguised sexual undercurrent and method actors like James Dean and Marlon Brando were bringing a new heat to the silver screen.
And, of course, the years 1948 and 1953 saw the publication of the so-called "Kinsey Reports," two books, one on male sexuality and the other on female sexuality, based on more than 18,000 sexual case histories, which forever changed how Americans understood themselves and their sex lives. Written by Indiana University professor Alfred Kinsey and a small staff of researchers, these two bestsellers were cultural bombshells because they showed the public that there was a vast divide between what they thought average people did sexually and what average people actually did.
At its best, Bill Condon's Kinsey, a straightforward biopic that traces Kinsey's life from childhood, captures the essence of that moment of revelation, how Kinsey's work opened eyes and rattled nerves. Even now, sex is a controversial topic, with everyone--from moralistic rightwing religious groups to free-for-all liberals--trying to define it and therefore own it.
What made Kinsey's intervention into the dialogue so historic was his stance that sex is simply biology and must therefore be understood from a rational, scientific viewpoint, with all sanctified religious, cultural, and legal issues stripped away. This gave him a new viewpoint through which he could view a fundamentally human topic that had become so obscured through moralistic and legalistic prattling that educated adults had little knowledge of how their own bodies worked.
But, at the same time, Kinsey's rigorous approach became a form of obfuscation itself because it didn't allow him to take into account the connections between sexuality and emotion. His clinical methodology produced a windfall of information that still informs sexual research today, but at the cost of reducing sex to mechanistic biological behavior, rather than human expression. The film points out several times that what Kinsey failed to see is that taking sex out of the context of religion, family, and society removed everything about it that is human. Not being a slave to biology is one of the primary distinctions between humans and other animals, a distinction that Kinsey sought to erase, rather than strengthen. To him, humans were just bigger versions of gall wasps, which he studied as a young zoologist.
Liam Neeson, who seems to be at his best when playing historic figures (Schindler's List, Michael Collins), brings a furrowed intelligence and a frustrating sense of stubbornness to his portrayal of Kinsey, beginning as a young biology professor who was so enraptured with studying the details of gall wasps (he collected more than a million of them over the years) that he was largely oblivious to socialization, a tendency that would carry through into his sex research. When he marries a graduate student named Clara McMillen (Laura Linney), he gets his first lesson in the difficulties of sexuality. At the time, he was largely uninformed about sex because he was the son of a stern, moralistic minister (John Lithgow) who preached about the evils of picture shows and zippers. While it feels like there is a certain element of truth to Lithgow's portrayal of Kinsey's father, most of the time it feels over the top, with Lithgow taking the entire burden of Victorian sexual repression on his grumpy shoulders.
If Kinsey has any other weakness, it is in the early passages in which Condon (Gods and Monsters) establishes the necessity of Kinsey's work by showing humorously just how ignorant most people were of human anatomy and biology. While he does this successfully, it is often at the expense of the characters on screen, as Condon invites us to feel a little too superior to their naivety. Kinsey and Clara's wedding night, however, is a powerfully dramatic depiction of the connections between sex and emotion, as their first time together is not only awkward and embarrassing, but painful.
Once Kinsey begins his research, the film moves into a new gear, rushing headlong through the years of trial and controversy. Kinsey builds a small staff of dedicated researchers, including a young man named Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard) with whom he has a brief affair. The staff becomes like Kinsey's extended family, and his open policies about human sexuality--essentially, nothing should be repressed because all sexual urges are biological in nature and therefore natural--begins to define their lives, sometimes to their detriment.
Condon's screenplay is streamlined and literate, balancing the depictions of Kinsey's personal life with his academic work. The subject matter of the film is so eye-catching and inflammatory that he didn't need to punch it up much, and he gives the film the general tone and feel of a conventional biopic. He captures well the essence of the times, the geniality of mid-century Midwestern life being slowly ruptured by revelations few people could have imagined.
He also wisely breaks up the film's temporal flow with black-and-white inserts of Kinsey acting as a guinea pig for his staff to practice their interviewing techniques, which both allows us to get vital information about his own past and also to see the intricacies of how the sexual histories were amassed. Condon is also visually playful at times, depicting Kinsey's histories as hundreds of talking heads on a map and literalizing the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female with stock footage of an atomic explosion.
Condon depicts Kinsey as striving to always remain morally neutral when listening to people's sexual histories (to get the information he wanted, he had to), an approach that is tested to the extreme in the case of an omniphile (William Sattler) who has carefully documented his entire sexual life, which involved more than 9,000 sexual partners, including more than half of his family and, most disturbingly, hundreds of preadolescent children, both girls and boys. Condon presents this scene with great care, and Neeson does a fine job of depicting Kinsey as he fights to maintain his neutrality even though, deep inside, he realizes that he's in a room with a monster. Yet, Kinsey was such a driven scientist that he couldn't not see this monster as an exemplary test case, one who could provide him with scores of information he would otherwise not have access to.
Sattler's character is juxtaposed with a woman played by Lynn Redgrave who comes to Kinsey late in his life to tell her sexual history. It turns out that she is a lesbian who was only able to accept herself after Kinsey's work had been published and opened her eyes to the fact that there were other women out there just like her. Condon clearly relishes the story she tells, as he allows it to play out in real time with no editing, his camera slowly pulling back as her tale unfolds, in a set-up that mimics almost exactly how Francis Ford Coppola shot the heart-rending story that opens The Godfather (1972). When she holds Kinsey's hand and tells him "You saved my life," that is the film's ultimate point: Whatever flaws Kinsey may have had as a man and whatever the limitations of his voluminous research and the controversy it provoked, it ultimately served a greater good.
In the end, though, Kinsey's life reads like a Greek tragedy, with his intellectual strength and willful resolve first taking him to the heights of academic achievement and, not ironically, international celebrity, before driving him down a road that led to addiction to barbiturates, failing health, and an increasing sense of misguided moral mission--the scientist as self-appointed savior. While at first he just wanted to catalogue and describe, in his later years Kinsey became intently outspoken about the need to reform laws regarding sexuality and to do away with the kinds of morality that he felt repressed the natural human state. While the 1950s was a time of sexual awakening, it had more than its share of repressive forces at work, and the increasingly outspoken Kinsey, driven by his findings and dismissive of anything else, was ultimately the victim of them.
|Kinsey is also available on DVD in a two-disc Special Edition that includes a second disc of supplements and has a SRP of $34.98.|
|Distributor||20th Century Fox Home Video|
|Release Date||May 17, 2005|
|The anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) of Kinsey is first-rate. The film is full of well-satured, bright colors (for example, see the scenes in Kinsey's garden), all of which are wonderfully reproduced. Detail and contrast are strong throughout, and there is not a speck of dirt or a scratch to be found.|
|The disc includes both a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track and a DTS 5.1 surround track, both of which are excellent. While the film is primarily dialogue-driven, Carter Burwell contributed a strong score that is nicely reproduced on both the Dolby and DTS tracks.|
|If you're looking for supplements, this single-disc release contains only a screen-specific audio commentary by writer/director Bill Condon. Condon is well-spoken and thorough as he weaves together stories about the film's production and the history of his subject. As Condon is first and foremost a writer, he spends a great deal of time discussing the writing of the film's screenplay, but he also focuses a good deal on the various actors, particularly the numerous New York stage actors who fill bit roles.|
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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