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The Other Dr. Strangelove 

Bill Condon’s Kinsey, plus Finding Neverland

Thursday, Nov 11 2004
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Photos by Clive Coote (top) and Ken Regan

WHEN IT COMES TO SEX, America has long been queasily stranded between prudery and prurience, and never more so than now, when our cultural hall monitors are finger-wagging fundamentalists and our champions of sexual freedom are porn-site operators. Even as AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases force us to spend more time talking about sex or watching it than actually doing it, we remain obsessed, often in unsavory ways — and I’m not just talking about smut. On the evidence of last week’s election, more people are taking an inordinate interest in what gay men and women do in the privacy of their own bedrooms. And only the other day I heard a concerned mother, no doubt one of the many such who voted Bush into his second term, wax plaintive on NPR about the irresponsibility of sex education in high schools, where advice on contraception is afforded equal time with abstinence counseling.

What Alfred Kinsey, a pioneer of whatever liberty the American libido managed to snatch for itself in the 20th century, would think of our carnally benighted new age is not hard to guess. Scientist, activist and (once he got the hang of it) swinger extraordinaire, Kinsey was a passionate believer in the liberating power of knowledge. I have no doubt he’d have judged that concerned mother to be both a spoilsport and a public-health risk, accountable in part for the epidemic of STDs and unwanted pregnancies. Had he lived, Kinsey would certainly have cheered on the sexual revolution of the ’60s, an era he arguably helped spawn. But to judge by Bill Condon’s smart, humane new movie about the exhilarating tangle that was Kinsey’s life and work, he was no hippie — though I suspect that, for professional and other reasons, he wouldn’t be averse to time spent on Internet porn sites given half a chance.

Condon, who made the superb Gods and Monsters, a life of the barely closeted Bride of Frankenstein director James Whale, has said he wanted to avoid making a staid biopic of Kinsey, and it’s true that Kinsey is jazzed by stylistic bells and whistles that make the movie great fun to watch. It’s framed by reconstructions, by turns wickedly funny and ineffably sad, of the up-close interviews Kinsey and his gung-ho researchers conducted with solid citizens, whores, gay barflies and sex maniacs all over America, culminating in an entertaining map of the country dotted with voluble talking heads, their tongues loosened by Kinsey’s candid questioning. Mostly, though, the camera is poignantly turned on Kinsey himself, to probe what transformed him from a repressed nerd into the sexual radical he became.

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Still, the film is a biopic, diligently covering the historical bases, now common knowledge from biographies and from T.C. Boyle’s flawed but readable recent novel The Inner Circle. Condon guides us methodically through Kinsey’s oppressive childhood with a rigidly puritanical father (judiciously underplayed by John Lithgow); the famous “marriage course” at Indiana University to which hundreds of students flocked, ravenous for sexual information and confirmation of what they were already doing under wraps; his marriage to Clara McMillen, the free-thinking chemistry student who became his partner in all his experiments on and off the curriculum; the establishment of the Institute for Sexual Research, where Kinsey collected varieties of human sexual behavior with the same impassioned zeal he’d brought as a young zoologist to the study of the gall wasp; his leap to fame with the publication of his vast report on male sexuality; and his recruitment of his research team for after-hours activities that brought out the polysexual in all of them, and, in some cases, ruined their lives.

Kinsey is a work of passionate advocacy by an openly homosexual filmmaker, but Condon doesn’t make the mistake of appropriating Kinsey as a gay icon, even though the former prude embraced his homosexual side with gusto once he discovered it, and controversially credited a third of America’s male population with homosexual proclivities. Nor is this a hagiography. On the contrary, the movie’s strength lies in its portrayal of a many-sided genius, as manipulative as he was charming and persuasive, monomaniacal to a fault, generous and sweet yet utterly clueless about the emotional havoc he wrought in the name of science, and like all crusaders for society, with more than a touch of the fanatic about him. According to Condon, Kinsey’s tragedy was that he was his father’s son. His triumph was that he managed to get over it.

Most movingly, though, Kinsey is also a fleshed-out portrait of a highly unusual marriage. The movie is also often very funny, as any film would be that featured Tim Curry as a crusader for abstinence, and it’s hard to imagine a less likely-looking pair of sexual adventurers than Kinsey (Liam Neeson) and Clara (Laura Linney). Like Nick Nolte, another big lug who’d have been just as good in the role, Neeson can be bearish, cuddly, wounded and unwittingly dangerous all at once. Awkward in tweeds, bow tie and porcupine hair, Neeson’s Kinsey, or Prok as he was affectionately (and otherwise) known to students and colleagues, is an ungainly professorial type with no gift for small talk. Condon’s sporadically stiff screenplay feels appropriate to a man who, for all his charisma, was so ill-attuned to the social signals of others that he could speechify for hours without noticing their eyes glaze over.

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