“Am I normal? Am I interested in the right things? Do I do them the normal way?” Many people will ask these questions as they discover their sexuality, and in 2020 they are more likely than ever to find reassuring voices. Eighty years ago, however ,American biologist Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson) would have answered with simply, “I don’t know”. He could have speculated, but Kinsey was a man of science. He could not conclusively answer such questions because American society knew very little beyond the social norm of “man plus woman equals baby”.
Kinsey sought to change this societal ignorance with his 1948 book Sexual Behavior in the American Male, which was constructed using detailed, face-to-face interviews with over 5000 men across the United States. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female followed five years later, which applied a similar methodology to a sample of some 6000 women. But this is not where Kinsey, written and directed by Bill Condon, begins its story.
The film opens with a practice interview between Kinsey and a student, Wardell Pomeroy (Chris O’Donnell), who asks his mentor about childhood, parents and sexuality. His answers, presented in flashback sequences, establish the character and purpose of Alfred Kinsey with skillful brevity, setting the tone for one of the smartest, leanest biopics of the past twenty years.
We see that the germ of Kinsey’s life work was a rejection of his hateful, authoritarian father, Alfred Seguine Kinsey (John Lithgow), a preacher and professor at Stevens Institute of Technology. An ultra-conservative Methodist, the elder Kinsey saw vice in everything from the telephone to the zipper, which, he claimed, “affords every young man and boy speedy access to moral oblivion.” He was the proverbial domestic despot; preoccupied with sex and repressed urges, wracked with anxiety and shame. He could be criticised in all manner of ways, but the junior Kinsey summarised him best, “a prig, a skinflint, a petty tyrant and a hypocrite to boot.”
Kinsey’s work would be a cooling antidote to such tortured prejudice. The foundation of his approach was to be non-judgmental, to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. Only with this approach could human sexuality be understood, rubbishing claims of cunnilingus damaging fertility or nervous, inexperienced women being ‘frigid’ or ‘damaged’ in some way. After all, such phallocentric dogma could be found in manuals such as ‘Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique’, which only compounded widespread ignorance with ideas such as ‘oral contact, while acceptable as a means of stimulation, is pathological if carried through to orgasm and possibly injurious’.
A winning biopic needs a winning performance, and it gets one from Liam Neeson, who depicts Kinsey as a sensitive yet doggedly earnest man. He’s always inspired, sometimes to a fault, as his neglect of social mores can alienate on occasion. For example, his son Bruce excuses himself from the dinner table during a comically frank conversation about hymens, in which Kinsey informs his youngest daughter that, “it helps if you spread the vulva to facilitate penetration”. Kinsey responds with anger, castigating his son in a manner all too familiar to the elder Kinsey’s browbeating tyranny.
It is important to note such moments, because while Kinsey is a flattering portrayal, it is not hagiography. We see the tensions and infighting of his research team, whose sexual experimentation with each other – encouraged by Kinsey purportedly in the name of science – would have bitter emotional fallout. Such events challenged Kinsey’s perhaps overly physiological notions of sex, but it was his approaching of abject sex offenders that raised the most hackles.
Kinsey and Pomeroy’s interview of Kenneth Braun, played by a suitably lecherous William Sadler, is a peek into the abyss of degeneracy. He claimed to have had sex with precisely 9412 people, which included 800 children and 17 members of his extended family. Bear in mind that this was just his human count, for he’d also had sex with 22 different species of animal. In this scene we see Pomeroy storm out, yet Kinsey remains seated, reminding Braun with controlled disgust that, “no one should be forced to do anything against their will, no one should ever be hurt.” It is a moment that raises tough questions about the limits of the academic method.
Historical films should serve to reanimate the past with honesty, insight and a certain degree of entertainment, namely in the sense that it holds one’s interest and attention. Bill Condon’s Kinsey is a preeminent example of this, and it also has the uncommon distinction of real, unadulterated accuracy. It’s forgiving, yes, but there’s little in the way of embellishment, invention and schmaltz (The Guardian’s ‘Reel History’ series testifies to that).
Skeptics may point to controversies around Kinsey’s data or question his physiological view of sex, and their concerns may well be valid. I do not have the knowledge to conclude either way. What is abundantly clear, though, is that Kinsey’s frank and non-judgmental attitude towards sex was infinitely preferable to the instructional, scare-mongering rhetoric that preceded it.