Director: Bill Condon
Entertainment grade: B+
History grade: A–
Alfred Kinsey was a professor of zoology who became interested in human sexuality. His Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University was the first of its kind. He is seen as the founder of sexology as an academic discipline.
Young Kinsey’s childhood is dominated by an ultra-religious father (John Lithgow). Kinsey Snr preaches publicly against modern technology for its role in facilitating illicit sex. To his mind, the problems include cars, electricity and the telephone. “And let’s not forget the most scandalous invention of all … the zipper! Which provides every man and boy speedy access to moral oblivion!” Well, that’s the first time I’ve heard it called that. The portrait of Kinsey’s repressed childhood is accurate – and, as the film suggests, probably explains a lot.
Kinsey (played as an adult by Liam Neeson) becomes a biologist, and devotes himself to the intensive study of the gall wasp. After a chaste courtship, he marries chemist Clara “Mac” McMillen (Laura Linney). The marriage is not initially consummated. The reason given in the film is accurate: his, er, moral oblivion was unusually large. Following surgery (on her, not him), the situation is resolved. Alongside his own sexual discovery, Kinsey is intrigued by the study of human sexuality. “But why didn’t I see it before?” he exclaims. “Human beings are just bigger, slightly more complicated gall wasps.”
By the end of the 1930s, there were 500,000 new cases of syphilis and 700,000 of gonorrhea in the United States every year. The marriage and hygiene courses on offer at American universities were limited, and indeed the one at Indiana was described by the student newspaper as “the most useless course in the university”. Kinsey begins his own course, with a much franker and less moralistic content than the usual. “Why offer a marriage course?” he asks. “Because society has interfered with what should be a normal biological development, causing a scandalous delay of sexual activity, which leads to sexual difficulty and early marriage.” Again, this is accurate; as is the fact that Kinsey used his students as research subjects, asking them to complete questionnaires about their sexual histories.
Soon, Kinsey grows close to one of those students, Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard). Together, they go to a gay bar in Chicago, where Kinsey is trying to collect more sex histories. They’re sharing a hotel room. Martin gets conspicuously naked, then asks Kinsey where he would fall on his own rating scale for sexual orientation (zero being totally straight, six being totally gay). “Probably three,” ventures Kinsey nervously. “Ever done anything about it?” asks Martin. Kinsey stares shyly at the floor, and Martin adds: “Would you like to?” In real life, Kinsey had already begun cottaging by the time he met Martin in 1939. By romanticising Kinsey as the passive object of a seduction, rather than showing him as a lurker in a public lavatory, the movie makes him more straightforwardly sympathetic.
Very little in this film is fabricated, but a few more kinks get almost imperceptibly ironed out. For instance, the film openly portrays the sexually liberated attitude of all Kinsey’s researchers – but it doesn’t emphasise Kinsey’s role in persuading all the men who work for him to try gay sex, often with him. Simultaneously, he insisted that they be “happily married”, to avoid scandal. In order to present Kinsey as a hero, everyone who questions his project is portrayed as anti-sex and conservative. In many cases, they were. But as his research strays further into questionable territory – making secret films of his subjects having sex; joining in; gathering unusual data on children’s sexual responses from one paedophile and presenting them as the product of a wider study – the film is obliged to skim over some of Kinsey’s excesses in order to keep him as its hero.
An exceptionally well-researched biopic, with great performances – but this is a very forgiving take on Alfred Kinsey.
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