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Beyond the Biopic, Bill Condon Tackles “Kinsey”

Beyond the Biopic, Bill Condon Tackles "Kinsey"

Beyond the Biopic, Bill Condon Tackles “Kinsey”

by Peter Brunette

A scene from Bill Condon’s “Kinsey.” Image provided by the Toronto International Film Festival.

“Kinsey,” Bill Condon‘s latest, manages to overcome a slew of handicaps associated with the Hollywood biopic to end up providing some very solid entertainment indeed. The director of “Gods and Monsters” (1998), which charmingly probed the hidden homosexual underbelly of the 1930’s Hollywood community, has now given us an almost militantly conventional film which, by means of the fascination provided by the supremely unconventional central figure and the inherent, enduring interest of his academic specialty (sex), triumphs against all odds.

Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson) was a man who managed to be both fully part of his repressed era and way ahead of it at the same time. Entranced by the natural world from childhood on, he eventually became a zoologist specializing in the habits of a species of moth and ended up teaching at Indiana University in the 1930’s. There he fell in love with one of his students, Clara (Laura Linney), who became his life companion and shared his work. Kinsey grew increasingly dissatisfied with the way that speculation about human sexuality remained solely within the province of religion and morals and decided to do something about it, if for no other reason than to help out his floundering newly-married students whose knowledge about sex was virtually nil, as his own and Clara’s had been.

He decided that it was possible to study sexuality scientifically the same way that he studied his beloved bugs, by collecting the biggest sample he could. Through a variety of means, he got ordinary people to talk about the most intimate details of their sexual lives. The result was the revolutionary bestseller “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,” which came out in 1948. Never before had anyone suspected that “normal” sex occurred along such an amazing spectrum of possibilities. This created an enormous, and mostly positive stir in American culture, but when Kinsey turned to an intimate description of female sexual response in 1953, at the height of the McCarthy period, all hell broke loose.

The absolutely best thing about the movie is the way it parlays the plethora of still-astonishingly frank sexual talk into both a source of rich humor and a convincing plea that sexuality is neither more nor less than a natural function of the human body and can and should be studied as such. At the same time, we come to understand how much the “naturalness” of sexuality is inflected by cultural values that are, of course, always historically determined and thus in a constant state of change. At one point, for example, Dr. Kinsey — back in the 1940s — counsels a troubled homosexual that “homosexuality is out of fashion right now,” thus providing us, by means of a throwaway line, a succinct example of the kind of work undertaken in contemporary cultural studies. Kinsey is even better as a potential feminist icon since he was one of the first to attack the reigning Freudian myth of the vaginal orgasm (which held that the clitoral orgasm was an immature response to be magically transcended at marriage).

This sexual hero is also honestly shown as a man who is so relentless and headstrong in his pursuit of scientific knowledge that he’s blind to all other values and truths that can’t be so easily quantified. If, as Kinsey and his co-workers are firmly convinced, sex is merely healthy human expression, then why do fist-fights break out when Kinsey’s assistants begin sleeping with each other’s wives? The good professor himself experiments sexually with a co-worker played by Peter Sarsgaard, wreaking havoc within the family circle until his wife Clara gets to sleep with the co-worker too. We come to see the entire enterprise for what it was, amazingly pioneering on one level, and, on another level, amazingly naïve about human psychology.

The directing is always crisply focused and the acting is uniformly excellent: Neeson, Linney, and Sarsgaard give the impression of having worked together all their lives. The movie’s faults mostly lie with the biopic genre and its often artificial “and then, and then” chronological structure. Cliches about absent-minded professors abound, serving as the usual lazy-minded character shorthand. The unevenness of real-life biography is shoe-horned into a conventional three-part structure in which Kinsey is seen by the end, despite all appearances to the contrary, to triumph over his adversaries–and they are legion, from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover on down — to the accompaniment of a truly awful musical score whose syrupiness threatens to kill the film in its final moments.

But these are, finally and happily, minor cavils, mere annoyances rather than serious detriments to enjoying this terrifically entertaining film.

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