Sex researcher Alfred Kinsey was controversial in 1948 when he published his landmark study “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,” and he remains controversial today. In fact, some have even protested the movie Kinsey, which is based on his life and work. Very conservative groups have blamed Kinsey for starting the sexual revolution, apparently believing it was better when most people were misinformed and scared about sexuality. Kinsey doesn’t sanctify the man, but it does suggest that had he not existed, the world would have needed to invent him. Somebody sooner or later would have to take a scientific approach to sex, and he just happened to be the one to get there first.
Liam Neeson plays the title character, a professor who initially studied moths, a subject that fascinated far fewer people than sex ultimately did. After coincidentally noticing that some of his students were misinformed about sexuality, he proposes studying it scientifically. Of course, this has never been done before so Kinsey meets with a fair amount of resistance. He is also met with great enthusiasm in some circles. Getting subjects for his study is not difficult, although Kinsey is very selective in whom he chooses. One of his most trusted helpers is Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), whose bisexuality ultimately alters the course of the study.
What Clyde helps to kick off is the realization that humans do all kinds of sexual things that are more common than anyone believes. The research begins to show that people use more than the missionary position, have extra-marital relations, experiment with homosexuality, and masturbate. No one ever talks about these things so it comes as a surprise that they are relatively commonplace. In one of the more shocking and controversial parts of the study, Kinsey also interviews a child molester about his proclivities, not because he condones it but because it’s part of the topic, no matter how horrific and inexcusable.
One of the interesting things about Kinsey - best exemplified by that last example – is that it portrays its hero as being totally scientific. Kinsey is a man for whom sex and emotion/love are not related. He does not judge his subjects, nor make any personal assessments about their practices. He simply studies what is there, as he believes a good scientist should. However, the fact that everyone else associates sex and emotion so closely causes publication of the study to be wildly controversial.
One of the key components of the protests involves Kinsey’s methods. Aside from the child molester (whom he interviews only), Kinsey photographs and films his staff engaging in sexual activity for the purpose of more detailed study. Although much information comes from thousands of interviews (i.e. “sexual histories”) gathered from participants around the country, Kinsey trusts only a select few scientific-minded colleagues and helpers to participate in certain sections of the study. He closely hews to the concept of a “control group.”
It is fascinating to watch how the character takes subject matter that was taboo and forces it out into the open. Kinsey is not one to take the confrontational approach; instead, he advocates making his subjects feel comfortable and safe so that they will feel freer to share personal information. Again, his method is very scientific and emotion-free. This is, perhaps, the only way to do it. Kinsey is savvy enough to know that such unexplored territory requires a delicate touch.
The performances are quite good in the film, with Liam Neeson nailing a potentially impenetrable role. He finds the right note for Alfred Kinsey – one of professional enthusiasm combined with scientific detachment that spills over into his personal life. There’s an interesting dynamic between Kinsey and his wife Clara (Laura Linney), who supports his work but doesn’t necessarily understand how he can remove his emotions from the equation so simply. Even when she attempts to put this oddity to the test, her husband fails to provide the reaction she expects. Linney gives a very understated, subtle performance that really works.
Writer/director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) approaches his subject with a respect that is passed on to the audience. He seems to argue that we needed Alfred Kinsey. Sexual behavior is common to all of us. Somebody had to come along and study it from a detached perspective, yet the vast majority of us are in no position to do so. Kinsey, therefore, provided a valuable service. He was the rare individual whose personality was a perfect fit for the subject.
There are lots of other things that make Kinsey worth recommending, including some very big laughs. It’s hard to believe that there was a time when people knew so little about sex, or had so many irrational beliefs about it. “How many sexual positions do you use?” Kinsey asks one young couple. The girl replies, “You mean there’s more than one?” Another major score is a cameo by Lynn Redgrave. I won’t give away her purpose in the film; however, I will say that she takes a single minute of film and delivers pure gold. It’s possible for her to be the only actress in history to snag an Oscar for a mere sixty seconds of screen time.
Kinsey is rich with pleasures. Yes, the work and methods of the man may still shock some people even in this age of Janet and Britney and Howard Stern. Not everyone may agree that sexuality needed to be studied. Most of us, though, understand that sexuality is a small part of the bigger picture, namely our humanity. It’s what keeps our species going. Depending on your point of view, Alfred Kinsey may be an angel or a devil. Personally, I think he was an important man and the film is about him is provocative, intelligent, and enormously entertaining.
( out of four)
Kinsey is rated R for pervasive sexual content, including some graphic images and descriptions. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.
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