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There's sex on his mind

In 'Kinsey,' filmmaker Bill Condon lays bare the successes and foibles of the man who dragged sexual behavior out of the bedroom and into the research lab.

November 12, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

If sex is front and center in today's America, a nation simultaneously puritanical and porn-obsessed, Alfred C. Kinsey put it there. Nearly forgotten now, this driven, obsessive pioneer comes to the screen in "Kinsey" with a psychological complexity his contemporaries never imagined. Intelligently written and directed with a pleasing frankness by Bill Condon and well played by Liam Neeson, Laura Linney and a strong supporting cast, the film skillfully uses the forms of old Hollywood to tell a story that would have given heart failure to Harry Cohn and his fellow tycoons.

Kinsey had a huge impact on the world we live in now, preparing the way for both the gay rights and women's liberation movements. The 18,000 sexual histories collected by his team, still considered the most extensive portrait of human sexual behavior ever assembled, exposed a serious gap between public moral rhetoric and private bedroom behavior that bedevils us today.

Even more remarkably, nearly half a century after his death Kinsey manages to remain a controversial figure. Recent research has revealed that this man Time magazine once called "an almost monotonously normal human being" was unapologetically bisexual and given to masochistic behavior that extended to self-mutilation. He encouraged the married members of his inner circle, very much including his wife, to have open relationships. He not only observed people having sex, he saw to it that the activity was extensively photographed in the privacy of his attic.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 13, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Liam Neeson -- A review of the movie "Kinsey" in Friday's Calendar section said Liam Neeson won an Oscar for his performance in "Schindler's List." He was nominated but didn't win.

How and how much this private behavior influenced the nature of Kinsey's groundbreaking work is a source of continual debate in the scientific world. And the thorny issues he raised about whether we view sexuality in a scientific or a moral context, about whether frankness and acceptance leads to immorality or frees the tormented, are as current as the recent elections.

Fitting all these questions and controversy into a film biography is a daunting task. But Condon, who wrote and directed "Gods and Monsters" and won an Oscar for the screenplay, succeeds by employing a dispassionate tone that ends up echoing Kinsey's own.

Using Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's sympathetic biography as his source material, Condon instinctively understands that nothing is more effective than bringing a conventional touch to incendiary material. Though some of the controversial aspects of the life are softened, "Kinsey" has the fortitude to deal with all of them, even the genital mutilation. The form may echo venerable classics such as "The Life of Emile Zola" and "Madame Curie," but that's where the resemblance -- and the squareness -- ends.

Philosophically, Kinsey was a taxonomist, a measurer who became a world authority on gall wasps by spending over 20 years accumulating more than 4 million specimens. He gloried in variations, believing "without measurement there can be no science," and the film underscores his passion for objectivity as another way to make its edgy subject matter palatable.

"Kinsey," handsomely photographed by Frederick Elmes and cast by Douglas Aibel and Cindy Tolan, has chosen its actors well, starting with Neeson as the man himself. A gifted performer who has a weakness for coming on too strong, Neeson is best, as his Oscar-winning work in "Schindler's List" demonstrated, when portraying messianic personalities. Here, given the opportunity to play a terribly earnest man who, in biographer James H. Jones' words, "was determined to strip human sexuality of its guilt and repression," he gives one of his most fully realized performances.

The always effective Linney is especially good as Kinsey's wife, Clara McMillen, who ended up pushing emotional boundaries she initially had no idea even existed. She and Neeson played together on Broadway in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" and that familiarity was doubtless a factor in the deeply connected performances here. As much as anything else, "Kinsey" is a portrait of a loving marriage that stayed that way no matter how unconventional its contours became.

Initially meeting as Indiana University professor and student, the Kinseys have painful difficulties consummating their marriage. The humiliating ignorance Alfred Kinsey feels until a doctor offers a solution, coupled with his rebellion against a priggish father (a fine John Lithgow) and a passionate faith in the power of science all lead to his determination to acquire knowledge in an area no one had thought to acquire it before. One of his key accomplishments was the construction of a one-page form, so complex it took a year to learn how to use it, on which a person's entire sexual history could be recorded in a secret code of his own devising.

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