The XXX Files

Too late for the election, a politically relevant biopic makes the case for sexual tolerance

The title of Bill Condon's previous film Gods and Monsters could work for his latest, Kinsey. For some, the zoologist turned sex researcher Alfred Kinsey (1894–1956) was a sort of Frankenstein who, operating in the 1940s and early '50s from a college campus in deepest Indiana, reinvented America's sense of its sexual self.

Opening too late for the election but still one the year's most politically relevant movies, Condon's earnestly middlebrow biopic is an argument for tolerance and diversity. Even more unusual, Kinsey is a movie about an individual in the grip of an idea. Electric crew cut crackling over his noble profile, Liam Neeson plays this American pioneer (also the subject of T.C. Boyle's new novel The Inner Circle) as a great glowering hero, dedicated to transcribing the sexual history of everyone he meets.

Our favorite French philo-perv Georges Bataille criticized the Kinsey project for its unavoidable detachment: "Any inquiry into the sexual life of subjects under observation is incompatible with scientific objectivity." But Kinsey rubs your nose, so to speak, in the force of its subject's obsessions. His initial passion is the gall wasp; indeed, his student and eventual wife (Laura Linney) picks him up by spinning a new hypothesis about these humble creatures. And once Kinsey switches interests, it's in the belief that "human beings are just bigger, more complicated gall wasps."

Measure of a man: Linney and Neeson
photo: 20th Century Fox
Measure of a man: Linney and Neeson

Condon, whose Gods and Monsters posited a theory regarding the enigmatic Hollywood director James Whale, takes pains to show that this deeply eccentric, if doggedly square, crusader rebelled against the hypocrisies of his own puritanical upbringing—his father (John Lithgow) is introduced denouncing the zipper—to found his own cult and become the most dangerous man in America. "It is impossible to estimate the damage this book will do to the [nation's] already deteriorating morals," rival evangelist Billy Graham declared when the atomic bomb that was Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Female exploded in late 1953.

Half a century later, Kinsey remains a puritan bête noire, held responsible for everything from jump-starting the sexual revolution and promoting junior high school sex education classes to enabling pornography, gay rights, and abortion on demand. It's not surprising that like the not unrelated sexual radicalism espoused by his wiggier contemporary Wilhelm Reich, Kinsey's project was ultimately linked to the international Communist conspiracy. No one put Kinsey in prison, but his longtime patron, the Rockefeller Foundation, was scared off by a congressional investigation.

Condon's reverential biopic doesn't have the erotic snap and crackle of Dusan Makavejev's classic Reich-fest W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism. The music is warm and fuzzy; the movie rummages through a sequoia grove for an appropriately cosmic closer. In Condon's view, Kinsey's greatness arises from his experience of sexual ignorance as a form of oppression. "Everyone is different [but] most people want to be the same," he later remarks. It's the truth underlying John Waters's recent contribution to America's internal jihad, A Dirty Shame. Although Kinsey recognized but three sexual abnormalities—"abstinence, celibacy, and delayed marriage"—it's possible that even he might have been stumped by the arcane practices that Waters claims to have discovered surfing on the Internet.

Kinsey's middle section—with the hero organizing campus classes in marital preparedness, discovering a new interest in boys (mainly his aide-de-camp, played by Peter Sarsgaard), and enabling his cadre of devoted young assistants to swap wives—is pure Waters. So is the movie's spelled-out moral: "Everybody's sin is nobody's sin." Would that Kinsey and A Dirty Shamehad traded directors. I'm not sure which movie is the top and which is the bottom, but they would make a splendid double bill. Of course, that's for blue states only.

 
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