What no one tells you about Kinsey, Bill (Gods and Monsters) Condon’s biopic of Alfred C Kinsey, the pioneering sexologist, is that it is funny. “The greatest threat to American morality is the zipper,” intones Kinsey’s fundamentalist father to a classroom of scrubbed fresh virgins, his hands mimicking the uncoupling of the clasps. “The zipper provides every man and boy with speedy access to moral oblivion.” Cue laughter.
There are plenty of other laughs to be found in the early 20th century sexual mores where morality disguised as fact had women believing oral sex led to frigidity and men that masturbation makes you blind. But underlying the laughter, Kinsey has a serious message as much for our time as for the buttoned-up America of the Eisenhower era.
The film opens with Kinsey’s research assistants taking his sexual history, and cuts between key episodes in his life. Son of a stern Methodist teacher, played with repressed malevolence by John Lithgow, he learned that sexual openness inexorably led to societal degeneration and the downfall of humanity. He rebelled, studied biology and married free spirited student Clara McMillan (Mac), a fine-toned performance by Laura Linney.
Sex rears its head when the newly wed Kinseys fail to discard their virginities on their honeymoon. It is painful to watch. Later, struggling to offer scientifically sound advice on sexual norms to his students he is inspired to find out exactly what America got up to in the bedroom, resulting in 1948 with Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male and Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female five years later. The final book finally caused America to lose patience with Dr Kinsey. “What did you expect?” asks one researcher of the bemused scientists. “You have told America that its mothers, wives and daughters are whores.”
Liam Neeson inhabits Kinsey, from whacked out GI crop top to his obsessive workaholism and sexual ambiguity. It is a landmark performance. He is ably matched by Linney and the researchers played by Peter Sarsgaard, Chris O’Donnell and Timothy Hutton, especially when Kinsey crosses the line from object to subject of his research, encouraging them to experiment, swap partners and appear with him in grainy 8mm sex films. Mac and the team provide an emotional context for Kinsey’s work and the limitations of his science: love cannot be measured.
Condon’s film has ambitious goals: a life of a complex and controversial man; a celebration of scientific endeavour; and a warning against the religious right who would all too quickly plunge us back into a dark world of sexual repression and ignorance. It is a lot to do in two hours, and there are loose ends he fails to tie up from a brief insight into Kinsey’s relationship with his son to Kinsey’s refusal to judge even the most aberrant behaviour.
But these are minor quibbles. Condon never preaches, never portrays Kinsey as the first sexual saint. He reminds us of what Kinsey sought to displace: a world in which tortured individuals were wracked by guilt; where women were either angels or whores; and where being gay meant a prison sentence. Does it matter to us now? More than ever in a world where Bush’s administration ties aid to the teaching of sexual abstinence and where Christian fundamentalists can march on the BBC over Jerry Springer: the Opera.