Review Date: 12 .07.04
Now playing at the Del Mar Theater in Santa Cruz, Kinsey is directed by Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) and stars Liam Neeson as Dr. Alfred Kinsey, the man who, in the 40s and 50s, told middle-class America-without moral judgment-what its sexual habits were. The film, which introduces him to us through his standard face-to-face up close interview technique, tells the story of his youth as the older son of an anguished and oppressive Protestant preacher father who rails against technology, sex, and the world. Kinsey then leaves home defiantly to study biology, getting his degree in zoology at Harvard and a job at Indiana. Eccentrically solitary, nerdy yet driven, Kinsey attracts the attention of a graduate student, Clara McMillen (Laura Linney), and they marry.
Most of the film is about his research into human sexuality, first as an informal counselor of students, then as teacher of a course on sex for married couples and graduate students, then through direct interviews with men and women across the United States, and finally sometimes through direct observation of volunteers. Because what Kinsey did then seems to us now scandalously impossible, the director overcompensates by making him take an impossibly rigid empirical scientific attitude toward sex-it's all biology, and biology will set us free!-and by making his interest in the subject and the interest of his project assistants so purely clinical as to not be believed. This is a movie about a hero-a flawed one, to be sure, since Kinsey doesn't understand what all the fuss is about and since he is so driven that he fails to notice much of what goes on around him-who takes a stand for benign variation-diversity-in the domain of human sexuality. It's clear that for Condon, this is especially important in the case of homosexuality, for the most moving characters in the film are people who have suffered greatly as a result of their own and the public's ignorance and censure of their sexual orientation. One deeply moving moment in the film shows a middle-aged woman thanking Kinsey for having shown her that her love could dare to speak its name after all.
Kinsey's research in the 40s, culminating first in the 1948 Sexual Behavior in the Human Male the shortly thereafter Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, discovered that in spite of our Puritan morality regarding all things sexual, Americans practiced a wide variety of sexual behaviors and that most, among other perhaps less surprising experience, have some same-sex behavior in their lives even when they do not consider themselves homosexual. His work was supported by the Rockefeller Foundation until it came under scrutiny from the McCarthy Commission in the 50s and-according to the movie-when the book on female sexuality scandalized the American public beyond its already sorely tested levels of moral tolerance.
Several aspects of the movie hint at what science cannot finally fathom: there is jealousy and possessiveness, as when Kinsey makes his first foray into same-sex sexual practices, to his wife's chagrin, or as when two of the assistants get in a fight over one of their wives sleeping with the other. Toward the end, Kinsey himself makes a remark about how science fails in the face of love's mysteries. And strangely, the two moments when wounds emerge around the question of sex belong to men: first Kinsey's father, who reveals himself to have been a surprisingly sexually wounded child, then his assistant, who makes a speech about the inextricability of love and sex. This is a movie about the mysteries of the human male, no question, and maybe it's that way because so much else about sex seems to focus on women. As a story, as a movie, Kinsey is not as compelling as we'd like it to be: it's plodding and relentless in its messages, and there's very little psychological depth and drama. But as a historical-albeit romanticized-portrait of someone who seems, now more than ever, heroic in his progressive thinking about sex, it is well worth having been made. Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.