Kinsey (2004)

It is often with the eye that stimulation begins.
— Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson), Kinsey

I will never have better placement for a credit in my life on a movie, than here, right as this young Kinsey is masturbating. The entire movie is a wank and I want everyone to know that.
— Bill Condon, commentary, Kinsey

Writer-director Bill Condon is as witty, modest, intelligent, and seductive a commentator as you’ll ever hear on a DVD. Plainly in love with his project (Kinsey) and appreciating the work put in by everyone involved — from composer Carter Burwell and costume designer Bruce Finlayson to Ian McKellan (who had agreed to do a different version of the film early on) and Laura Linney (the first person actually cast, a “great, great person as well as an actress”) to the many interview subjects who “knew Kinsey” (the film involved a “tremendous amount of research”). Not to mention Liam Neeson as the title character: “I think what he pulls off in this part is just so extraordinary. I would say it was the scariest thing about making this movie,” Condon exults. “There was such an opportunity for us to have a movie which had no center, or had somebody who you just couldn’t relate to.”

That said, the film offers multiple ways into this complicated, occasionally off-putting character, not least being Linney’s performance as his wife Mac. “In scene after scene,” observes Condon, as the two share a picnic lunch on the pretty green lawn of Indiana University’s campus (where Alfred Kinsey is a an assistant professor of zoology, studying gall wasps, and Mac is his enraptured student), “He’s extremely socially ill at ease, and he’s something of a bully, an intellectual bully certainly… but I do think it’s her view of him that kind of humanizes him.” Indeed, it appears that the more awkward Kinsey appears, the more engaging the filmic moment, as rendered by interactions between Neeson and Linney, demonstrating what Condon calls “this devotion to the truth.”

For this particular role, any “truth” is exceedingly complex. Not only is the character difficult by heroic biopic standards, but his story combines radical thinking, extraordinary generosity, and supreme egotism. The word “groundbreaking” doesn’t begin to describe the work he did or the life he led. Condon (who made Gods and Monsters, about James Whale) approached his subject carefully. First problem, as he says is that “Biopics aren’t my favorite form of movie. I actually think the best way to sort of tell a person’s life is to really pick a moment in time. I think that’s how we know people.” And so he structures the film as moments in time — interviews with Kinsey’s sex survey subjects, shifting judgments, moral dilemmas, emotional exchanges between characters with high stakes.

The film begins with a series of sex survey interviews, shot in black and white, and formal, slightly nervous cut together. More precisely, these are practice interviews, wherein Kinsey sits across from his young, eager researchers, teaching them how to ask direct questions, how to affect interest but not judgment, how to fill out the 287 boxes on each interviewee’s answer sheet, and how close to sit to interviewees. Such attention to every detail of the process is typical of Kinsey, a renowned obsessive when it came to his work.

The fact that his work was sex, in various senses, made Kinsey something of a sensation during his lifetime. It also makes him alarmingly relevant today, as conservative movements increasingly seek to close down sex education, equal rights based on sexual identity, even discussions about sex (and evolution, for that matter). The same battles Kinsey waged half a century ago are now resurrected, with the resurgence of censorship, intolerance, and repression, stemming from fear of sexual behaviors, desires, and differences, the very objects of Kinsey’s pioneering studies.

Indeed, the connections between his project and Kinsey as a project are reflected in the DVD’s special features, collected in the two-disc version on the second disc (both versions feature Condon’s commentary). These include deleted scenes and an alternative ending (with more commentary), a “tour” of the Kinsey Institute, and an interactive sex questionnaire. The most detailed extra is “The Kinsey Report: Sex on Film,” a making-of documentary intercut with interviews concerning “first” encounters with sex, making telling links between Kinsey’s work and work that still needs to be done (as Condon notes on the commentary track, when he attended screenings, at the moment when Kinsey first shows explicit photos of an erect penis entering a vagina to his class, audience members tended to gasp much like the students in the film.

Kinsey’s own openness to sex was, in his mind anyway, a function of his dedication to science. This led him to reject so-called “moral” judgments, in order that he might discover how desires create social and political systems. Seeing it as a sort of mission to collect data and develop resources for the teaching of sex in college (until Kinsey, “marriage” or “hygiene” courses mostly talked around sex or preached abstinence). Most of all, he wanted to know how people had sex and how they thought about it, in order that talking about it might be normalized. When his first massive study, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, was published in 1948, he became a media celebrity — and only partly reluctantly. Early on, Kinsey understood the power he might wield with stardom. And every bit of money or clout he earned, he put back into his work.

As they recur throughout the film, Kinsey’s interviews form a structural motif, a frame on which to hang a set of biographical flashbacks. His ornery Methodist and Sunday school teacher dad (John Lithgow) determinedly condemns the evils of even thinking about sex. Al grows up inhibited but also curious, his scientific bent emerging as he decides to study biology, eventually leading to a dramatic but barely sketched-out break-up with dad: Al calls him a “prig,” whereupon his father accuses him of becoming a “shady person,” someone who “keeps secrets.”

Perhaps most difficult to convey is Kinsey’s enthusiasm for his work, partly perverse, partly admirable. As Mac helps you to see him as a fallible, awkward, even “churchy” man (her term), she also reflects his big heart and his genuine desire to do good. Offering sensible, tolerant advice when he comes to an impasse, even prods him to step beyond what she calls his “churchy” tendencies. But she is also, like the audience, on the outside of Kinsey. Thanks in large part to Neeson’s careful performance, Kinsey appears here as a man of prodigious intelligence and brilliant insight, who has predictable difficulties dealing with day to day social particulars.

His interactions with Indiana’s administration (Oliver Platt as President Herman Wells) or fellow faculty (Tim Curry as nastily competitive Thurman Rice) typically appear so that the imbalances of “intellectual” and “practical” concerns, sometimes comic, often tense, in rhythms that recall those of Gods and Monsters. Still, Kinsey’s mix of self-doubt and ego is hard to show. When he is reviled for his study of women’s sexuality, which exposes uncomfortable minutiae about “mothers” and “daughters,” he is “forgiven” in an awkward sort of movie closure scene, as a lesbian (Lynne Redgrave) thanks him for “saving” her life. While such responses may be “true,” in a broad or even particular sense, the scene feels tacked on, a way to explain too much in a few minutes.

At its best, Kinsey turns nearly impressionistic, as when it represents the doctor’s increasingly convoluted relationships with his team, Wardell Pomeroy (Chris O’Donnell), Paul Gebhard (Timothy Hutton), and Clyde Martin. As the last, Peter Saarsgard, offers another of his fluid, lovely, and sometimes unnerving performance — no one can ambiguate sex and desire as he can, except maybe Neeson, here. Their visit to a gay bar (decked out in red Christmas lights that Condon notes help to make the place look quite “gay” and not so dour and oppressive as gay bars usually seem in the movies) leads to an affair between the two men, as Kinsey expands his own experience (the fact that Mac later takes up with Clyde makes him nervous, but he’s determined not to be hypocritical). Clyde and Kinsey’s full-on kiss, Condon remembers, caused consternation in theaters (“Kids groaned,” he says, “It’s just interesting to think that… something like this would still be so disturbing to people,. But there you go”).

Eventually, Kinsey and his team (and their young wives) integrate such swapping into their research, filming it for research purposes. Unable to view these films (they’re still locked away), Condon here turns them into fuzzy, wide-angled, black-and-white fever-dreamish sequences, shot on 16mm, imagining how the team might have become wildly intimate under their ostensibly professional terms. The shots are difficult to read, weird, and disturbing, insinuating the tangle of goals and means in which they all engaged.

When Paul and Clyde eventually come to blows, the former upset that the latter has apparently seduced his wife beyond their lab settings, Kinsey breaks them up like squabbling children. He’s startled to see they can’t maintain their scientific distance. And here, briefly, Clyde (like Mac before him) looks astounded that Kinsey hasn’t quite caught up, that he remains so locked into his naïve wonder at the acts, perhaps willfully rejecting the emotional resonances, responsibilities, and losses that sex represents and evokes.

“What I was struck with when I was writing this script,” says Condon, “was how far we’ve come and how much things have stayed the same. In terms of pop culture, there’s no question that Kinsey has won that argument. In terms of frank sexual discussions, imagery, tolerance, all, whether it’s television, advertising, movies, videos, music, I think there’s no doubt that sex is here to stay… However, on the other side, in the power structure, in the government, in education, I think we’re right back where we were back in the ’50s.” Offering a series of moments, Kinsey makes connections and develops insights in ways that repay re-viewing. While, as Kinsey says here, “One of the aims of science is to simplify,” art can only complicate.