Written and Directed by Bill Condon
Screening at FACT from 4th - 17th March 2005
At times conservatively selective in what it shows, this account of the
life of former zoologist-turned sex scientist Alfred Kinsey is less daring
than it appears to be. Still, with superb turns from Liam Neeson and Laura
Linney, this is an amiable biopic that calls for greater tolerance and
acceptance of sexuality and diversity. *** out of five
Indiana in the mid-1940s. After defying the wishes of his rigidly religious
father and successfully completing his biology studies, Alfred Kinsey
becomes a zoologist at the local university. While teaching on the subject
of gall wasps, Kinsey falls in love with, and eventually marries one of
his students, Clara McMillen. Having experienced the suppression of sexuality
first hand and seeing it reflected in the lives of his students, Kinsey
advocates and succeeds in the introduction of a marriage course. Seeing
the education and enlightenment of the population on sexual behaviour
as his purpose in life, he founds the Institute of Sexual Research in
1947 and begins his own research into the sex lives of ordinary people.
Based on interviews of over 18,000 men and women, he publishes two comprehensive
reports documenting male and female sexuality in 1948 and 1953 respectively.
However, his ambitions to conduct and publish further studies are met
with strong opposition from the country’s conservative communities.
Credited with starting the sexual revolution with his 1948 report, “Sexual
Behaviour in the Human Male” and its 1953 follow-up on female sexuality,
Alfred Kinsey became the best-known American of his time, second only
to President Harry S. Truman. His motivation was to liberate the American
population from society’s pressures by providing morally neutral
advice and information on sexual behaviour, practice and diversity. This
made him a target for religious conservatives of both his time and our
present, as demonstrated by the furore surrounding the new film and its
gay director, Bill Condon, in America.
Kinsey, Condon’s second biopic after his award-winning Gods and
Monsters, is a respectable attempt to summarise and emphasise Kinsey’s
achievements, his status as a pioneering scientist, and his historic significance
within US society and culture. The film benefits from Condon’s articulate,
concise script and the impressive ensemble cast: in particular Liam Neeson
and Laura Linney are terrific. John Lithgow’s has a memorable supporting
turn as Kinsey’s bigoted father and Lynn Redgrave’s cameo
in the picture’s closing minutes is profoundly moving.
Kinsey is progressive in the way it acknowledges, advertises and reinforces
the need to promote tolerance and acceptance of sexual and social diversity.
Deflecting right-wing claims to the contrary, the film is also mindful
of the limitations and difficulties faced by Kinsey and his contemporaries
in dealing with these issues: in one instance Kinsey’s assistant
Pomeroy breaks with their non-judgemental interview policy after a client
has admitted to incest. Still, Condon’s film is not quite as comprehensive
and daring as it could be: its account of Kinsey does on the one hand
acknowledge the flaws of a man who regarded sex purely as a biological
process and considered feelings of love as irrelevant to it. Yet Kinsey
is also surprisingly selective to the point of hinting at and then fudging
the issue of his secret life as a bisexual with voyeuristic and masochistic
tendencies, as a man who had affairs with his colleagues, cruised for
gay prostitutes and conducted private orgies.
We therefore get a film that laudably advocates tolerance and acceptance
but simultaneously sanitises its subject matter. By playing it safe, Kinsey
is more conservative and conventionally mainstream than one would have
originally assumed. It also fails to take the opportunities that offer
themselves to question the moral climate of the time. When we learn that
Kinsey is trailed by the FBI on orders from J. Edgar Hoover, it is, given
the bureau chief’s own history of mixing with transvestites, a bit
surprising that Condon doesn’t take advantage of this to expose
the irony of the moral double standards of Kinsey’s critics. Altogether
though, it is a commendably pragmatic and superbly acted film that should
encourage further debate and reflection.