We live in a world at war with its own modernity. A pharmacist refuses to dispense birth control pills "for religious reasons." The Georgia legislature has required its high school biology curriculum to teach evolution and creationism as equivalently valid theories. President Bush successfully campaigned for reelection on his opposition to funding new lines of stem cell research. Yielding to pressure from the religious right, his administration blocked dissemination of family-planning techniques to citizens in Third World countries. A large part of the Bush electorate seemed imbued with religious certainty and hostility to scientific inquiry. But such retrogressive attitudes are not new. Writer-director Bill Condon's biopic Kinsey reminds us that Americans have long possessed a peculiar ostrich-like desire to stick our collective heads into the falsely comforting sands of ignorance.
As detailed in the film, Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson), born in 1894, is raised in a restrictive religious home where sex is a negative obsession. His Luddite father (John Lithgow) denounces almost all modern inventions as conveniences that facilitate illicit sex. The automobile isn't for transportation but for parking. "The zipper," he sneers, "provides speedy access to moral oblivion." In rebellion against his father's narrow-minded self-righteousness, Kinsey becomes a man of science. He earns a Ph.D. in biology, lands a faculty position at Indiana University and becomes the world's leading authority on gall wasps.
Then after agreeing to teach a class in sex education, Kinsey is appalled to discover the dearth of available scientific literature about this fundamental aspect of human life. Most literature that addresses human sexuality at all simply promulgates ancient and ridiculous religious superstition: Masturbation causes blindness and insanity, cunnilingus inhibits pregnancy, homosexuality is a treatable mental disease, etc. In this sea of misinformation and vacuum of scientific data, Kinsey finds his life's work.
Beginning in 1940, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, he undertakes a sweeping survey of contemporary sexual experiences and practices. His exhaustively trained team of researchers criss-crosses the nation and conducts tens of thousands of confidential interviews. Pulled together, analyzed and summarized, these interviews first yield Kinsey's 1948 bestseller, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. The book explodes sundry myths about sexual practice. In short, people are doing a lot more in their bedrooms than they'd ever admit in the living room. And the very things they enjoy in private, and inevitably feel guilty about, are the same things that are criminalized in state statutes and denounced from the pulpit and public podium.
Bill Condon obviously sees Kinsey as a hero, a man who dared shine light where darkness had hitherto reigned. In a performance that will compete for year-end honors, Neeson plays Kinsey as a strapping crusader, relentlessly honest, earnest, upright and fearless. And in the film's last third we can see how Kinsey's strengths are the very qualities that lead to his downfall. Appearing in the McCarthy era of 1953, his second volume, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, is denounced as a communist plot to rot the moral fiber of American youth. Were he more politically agile, were he willing to tack into the winds of opposition rather than sail directly into them, he might be more successful. But as long as he has the scientific high ground, he will grant no quarter. And when a congressional committee investigates him and intimidates his financial sponsors, his short season as a prominent player on the American cultural stage is over. He never completes his study of sexual perversions.
Condon might profitably have spent more time on Kinsey's persecution and demise. And the time to do so could have been found by eliminating some of the scenes in Kinsey's youth. But the filmmaker is fair and wise to enhance our understanding of how Kinsey's intrinsic nature would ultimately limit his success. He was a Joe Friday of a scientist -- just the facts, thank you very much. Sexual curiosity and pleasure should be limited only by the appetites of one's partner, hence Kinsey's occasional homosexual dalliances with his assistant Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), and his evident encouragement of wife swapping and group sex among his researchers. If it feels good, do it.
But human beings are spiritual as well as physical creatures. And though we're not sure she ever manages to get him to understand, Kinsey's devoted wife, Clara McMillen (Laura Linney in yet another outstanding performance), tries to explain to her husband that attributes like marital fidelity and friendship can validly require restraint. The pleasures of sex need sometimes be trumped by even greater virtues.
In sum, Condon's Kinsey is a flawed but compelling hero, and the film lingers not on his victimization or his emotional blind spots but on his invaluable contribution to our understanding of who we are as sexual creatures. There are many among us who would rush again to draw it closed, but Alfred Kinsey pulled back the curtain on Victorian prudery that had rendered shameful what science showed to be entirely natural.
- Pillow talk: Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson) discusses sex with his wife, Clara, in Bill Condon's excellent biopic, Kinsey.