In both word and deed, Alfred Kinsey was one of the most fascinating characters this country has ever produced. The words were collected in two books published in 1948 and 1953, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, together known as the Kinsey Report. And rarely has a scholar's labors had such a lasting effect on the public's desire to get down and boogie. Based on thousands of lengthy interviews, Kinsey's research blew the lid on America's libido. Not only were we having a lot more sex than any of us thought we were, the sex itself came in all sorts of shapes and sizes. And Kinsey's nonjudgmental approach, his tolerance for sexual diversity, loosened people up even more, paving the way for the sexual revolution of the '60s, which Kinsey has been given both credit and blame for.
So much for the words. The deeds are the subject of Kinsey, Bill Condon's respectful biopic, which stars Liam Neeson as a man who, while taking down the sexual histories of countless men and women, kept his own proclivities a secret except to his closest associates, many of whom joined him in a communal grope that went on for years. As the movie shows, Kinsey grew up in a repressively religious atmosphere, and his whole life can be seen as a rebellion against his father, a Methodist minister (ably played by John Lithgow) who preached against zippers for providing "speedy access to moral oblivion." But Kinsey, for all his extracurricular (not to mention extramarital) activities, always retained something of the Victorian rationalist about him. He was a scientist first, a guy who liked to get his freak on second.
That's how Neeson plays him, anyway. A crisp bowtie wrapped around his neck, Neeson's Kinsey is full of passion -- intellectual passion. Otherwise, he seems to have a genius for compartmentalizing his life. One moment he's lying in bed in a Chicago hotel room, tabulating the data he'd collected from the local gay community, the next moment he's swapping spit with his research assistant, as seemingly surprised as we are that he turns out to be bisexual. Can the real Kinsey have possibly been this naÃve? The thing about fascinating people is that they embody contradictions. Bill Clinton, who resembles Kinsey in some ways, is capable of seeming both earnest and fraudulent at the same time, and yet we accept him as a single integrated human being. Neeson's Kinsey has a little more trouble squaring the circle.
So does the movie as a whole. It wants to give Kinsey his due, but it also finds the whole thing rather amusing. (How could it not?) I only wish that Condon had brought out even more of the humor, more of the absurdity, neither of which would necessarily have invalidated Kinsey's work. Actually, Kinsey's work wound up invalidating Kinsey's work; his sample population, though much larger than anyone else's, was anything but representative. Which makes you wonder what drove him to conduct all those interviews. "You're using science to justify what you've done," Kinsey's wife (Laura Linney) tells him. Linney has the near-impossible task of portraying a woman who stays married to a near-impossible man, and somehow she does it, convinces us that there's something there to love and admire.
After watching Kinsey, it's easy to admire, if not quite love, Kinsey. Yes, he's at least partly responsible for bringing us Paris Hilton, but he's also largely responsible for bringing us the news that, say, masturbation doesn't lead to insanity, blindness, even death. So he's a hero of sorts, but a profoundly enigmatic one. What can you say about a guy who circumcises himself with a pocketknife just to see how it feels? Condon is brave enough to include the scene (its aftermath, anyway), but he isn't probing enough to figure out what it meant. Sex turned out to be messier than Kinsey ever gave it credit for. Likewise, Kinsey has to have been messier than Kinsey gives him credit for.