Liam Neeson as Professor Alfred Kinsey, Sexologist) (2004, Director/Writer: Bill Condon; Producer: Gail Mutrux; Myriad Pictures
by Gary Schubach, Ed.D., A.C.S. ©2004
Reviewing movies about historical figures always involves at least two factors. First, there is the question of the historical accuracy of the material and whether the essence of the character is portrayed when theatrical license has been taken. The second question is whether the film is relevant to today’s moviegoers – and if so, in what ways?
I found the movie Kinsey to be both true to his work and to the essence of this dedicated man. Besides being highly entertaining, it was very relevant today to an audience which had no idea who Alfred Kinsey was or how his work had impacted their lives. Anyone who sees this movie will get to experience first hand how ignorant and misinformed people were about sex when Kinsey began studying human sexuality in 1937. Examples of this were the stated belief that performance of cunnilingus would reduce a woman’s fertility, as well as most of the clichés about masturbation. These seem ridiculous to us now, but before Kinsey, they were considered common knowledge. When I saw the film, the audience laughed at such misleading ideas, while becoming poignantly aware of just how much pain, suffering, and loss of intimacy this misinformation caused.
Liam Neeson, a wonderful actor with a talent for humanizing historical characters, especially as tragic heroes, in films such as Schindler’s List, Rob Roy and Michael Collins, is perfectly cast as Professor Alfred Kinsey. It was a brilliant stroke of genius for director/writer Bill Condon to create audience empathy for Kinsey through a series of flashbacks showing Kinsey demonstrating to his associates how to take a sex history by sharing his own.
Another exceptionally inspired decision on Condon’s part was to show Alfred Kinsey to the audience through the eyes of his wife, Clara, played by Laura Linney. The chemistry between Linney as Clara Kinsey and Neeson as Alfred Kinsey is magical and, through Clara’s eyes, we see his extraordinary humanity as well as his dogged persistence.
Trained as a zoologist, Kinsey made no moral judgments on the differences in the millions of gall wasps he studied earlier in his career. Instead, he observed and reported his observations. An appreciation of diversity in nature made him uniquely prepared to objectively study and do research on human sexuality. One of the things which differentiated Kinsey from anyone who came before him was the way he was able to put people at ease during the interview so they would disclose their innermost secrets. His associates were trained to discuss people’s sex lives without any portrayal of judgment or reflection of personal sexual issues. No one before or since has been as good at doing this as Kinsey. How this is depicted in the film is a wonderful way for the viewing public to empathize with Kinsey and his compassionate aspects which are in all of us.
The film also accurately portrayed how much people love to talk about and want to know about sex, if they feel free enough to ask and explore. As sexologists, we see this all the time but the film made a meaningful contribution in bringing out the natural joy about sex that people can experience, even in an age of severely repressed and misleading sexual knowledge.
Towards the end of the movie two superb scenes had significant emotional impact on the audience. Lynn Redgrave, in a small part as a Kinsey interviewee, demonstrated to the audience how Kinsey, even after he was emotionally beaten down from scathing criticism, had made a significant difference in people’s lives. Redgrave’s character, in giving her sex history to Dr. Kinsey, showed just how far people had come in Kinsey’s time in understanding that they were not alone in their sexual feelings and preferences and that they could be free of the shame and guilt that often preoccupied them because of the overall sexual ignorance of society about sex. Additionally, the scene with John Lithgow as Kinsey’s father, in which Kinsey takes his father’s (very reluctantly given) sex history, shows again how much suffering can be caused by cruel and unnecessary ignorance.
These two powerful scenes capture the vitally important contribution that Professor Kinsey made in their lives as representative of his potent gift to all of our lives. These scenes also served to give the audience an emotional response to the mostly intellectual aspect of Kinsey’s work. The second time I saw the film I had a chance to watch the audience reaction to these scenes and many people were moved to tears.
The essential message of Kinsey is that knowledge is power. Freedom of scientific inquiry and the free exchange of information in the area of human sexuality are not unrelated to a profound faith in the right of all people to see, to hear, and to read material that may be essential to their growth, happiness and fulfillment as human beings. In this nation, we have taken one fundamental gamble: that in the free marketplace of thought, by the matching of ideas, truth has a better chance of winning than any other method known to man.
Sadly, the struggle for sex research and education has fallen on difficult times in recent years. We are still in the relative dark ages in terms of knowledge in this most essential area of people’s lives. Kinsey, the movie, emphasizes how important comprehensive sexual education is for the future and survival of humankind. Ultimately, this is the meaning and legacy of Kinsey – the person and the movie.
The ‘religious right’ is probably going to be very upset about Kinsey. They may traipse out a lot of old, unproven rumors about how Kinsey obtained his information regarding childhood sexuality. They will probably claim that Kinsey used information from shady characters, criminals, Nazis, pedophiles, or other unsavory people. The truth of the matter is that, as a scientist, Kinsey was willing to accept written and oral data from anyone willing to reveal that private aspect of their lives. However, this did not shake his overriding commitment to the strong belief that no one ever should be forced to do anything against his or her will. The film handled this well by showing Kinsey’s interview with the character “Kenneth Braun,” a pedophile who represented all of the unconventional and socially outcast people with whom Kinsey had to deal in order to obtain his data.
Moral conservatives dream of erasing all the gains of the sexual revolution. Instead, we need more, not less, of the kind of straightforward sexual research that Kinsey stood for. It is my hope that this movie galvanizes public sentiment, not only to greater compassion and tolerance, but for continued research and education, so that the overall quality of human life, in full sexual and intimate expression, can be potentiated and optimized.
I believe Dr. Kinsey’s most valuable accomplishment was that, in an authoritarian age with a rising conflict between the religious and secular segments, he reaffirmed the rational pragmatic values of experimental science in a field of human existence previously given over to dogma and fear. The work which Professor Kinsey and his associates pioneered ultimately led other researchers to a body of comparative data on the sexual behavior of all mankind that was appreciably more realistic and dependable. With openness and a natural desire to learn, American society finally began to approach the subject of human sexuality with something more than shame or feigned self-righteousness.
Kinsey Film DVD’s for sale through Amazon.com
Academy Award-winning Bill Condon (GODS & MONSTERS, CHICAGO) explores the life of the pioneer of human sexuality research, Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson). Spanning six decades from his childhood in the early 1900s to his death in 1956, the film turns the microscope on the man whose landmark studies on the sexual behaviors of the common man rocked a nation.
Two-Disc Special Edition Extra Features
|Kinsey: American Experience (2004)
PBS documentary assesses Kinsey’s achievements, while examining how his personal life shaped his career, through interviews with his research assistants, his children, his biographers, and historians.