“One day it hit me…what if the movie was nothing more than Kinsey’s own sex history?”
—Bill Condon, writer and director of Kinsey
The key to making a compelling movie about science is often to focus on the scientist as much as on the scientific process. Bill Condon’s ingenious Kinsey (2004), winner of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Film Prize in Science and Technology at the Hamptons International Film Festival, fits into the science biopic genre while cleverly incorporating the scientist’s investigative process into the narrative.
The film opens with Kinsey (Liam Neeson) being interviewed by his new assistant Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard). Kinsey gives Martin advice that seems to go against standard scientific practice: “Don’t sit so far away. Anything that creates a distance should be avoided.” The audience is thus invited into the personal sphere of Kinsey’s life, much as Kinsey integrates intimacy into his method of research.
Kinsey’s investigative technique had its roots in his work as a zoologist. Throughout the 1920s, he closely examined thousands of individual gall wasps, measuring characteristics including color, size, and wing length to prove that no two members of the species are exactly alike. His massive compilation of data led to the liberating conclusion that it’s normal to be “abnormal.” As Condon explains, “The problem, as [Kinsey] saw it, was that, though we’re all different, we all need to feel part of the group to feel reassured that what we do is normal. But there’s no such thing as normal—there’s only common or rare.”
Just as a scientist hopes for a discovery, a film audience awaits the protagonist’s moment of epiphany. Here, the breakthrough comes when Kinsey tries to assure a young couple that there is no connection between oral sex and fertility. “But how do you know?” asks the skeptical husband. “Has anyone actually proven there’s no connection?” Thus begins Kinsey’s life work, his mission to compile 100,000 interviews proving that most social dogmas regarding sex were not based in truth but instead were “morality disguised as fact.” The results of Kinsey’s interviews were two groundbreaking and best-selling books, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953).
The film is well aware of two central ironies regarding Kinsey’s work and the impact of his books. First, it was precisely the dry, scientific approach with which he treated his potentially incendiary subject matter that made Kinsey’s books socially acceptable. And second, while sex is the most intimate and private of human acts, Kinsey’s findings had enormously public, and therefore political, consequences.
Condon draws a direct connection between the film’s personal drama and its political concerns. Kinsey’s work is fuelled by a rebellion against his domineering father, a preacher who lectures on the evils of the “modern inventions of science,” most notably “the most scandalous invention of all: the talon slide fastener (otherwise known as the zipper) which provides every man and boy speedy access to moral oblivion.”
The struggle between Kinseys père and fils echoes the struggle between science and religion. This conflict is a key subtext in many science films, with celluloid scientists functioning as so many Dr. Frankensteins, disturbing the natural order by taking on the role of creator.
The political significance of the religion vs. science controversy was seen in the reaction to Kinsey’s books. They were attacked by religious leaders such as the Reverend Billy Graham, who said in 1953, “it is impossible to estimate the damage this book will do to the already deteriorating morals of America.” A half-century later, the debate continues, as evidenced by the numerous protests sparked by Condon’s film. Among the strongest critics was the website Christiananswers.net, which described Kinsey as “an effort to rehabilitate a ‘father’ of the hellish sexual revolution who has been discredited because of his debauched lifestyle and the misinformation he spread about sex.”
The political relevance of Kinsey is clear. Kinsey was released in the fall of 2004, in the wake of a presidential election in which issues of sexual morality (gay marriage) and science (stem cell research) played key roles. Condon is asking contemporary audiences to consider the importance today of Kinsey’s mind-opening research.
Yet just as Kinsey used science to imbue his revolutionary ideas about sexuality with authority, Condon skillfully and cleverly couches his provocative political concerns within the respectable veneer of a meticulously crafted art movie. “There’s another movie to be made about Kinsey that would be quite confrontational,” said Condon, “but I decided on a more classical approach, where you’re lulled into a kind of pretty Merchant-Ivory universe,” playing on the dissonance between the lush beauty and solid classicism of the style and the fresh bluntness of the subject matter.
Yet Condon’s most revelatory insight—and Kinsey’s—may be that in demystifying sex, one can still preserve a sense of mystery about love. “You’ve just told me your entire history…every person you’ve ever had sex with. But there hasn’t been a single mention of love,” says Clyde Martin to Kinsey as the interview draws to a close. “That’s because it’s impossible to measure love,” responds Kinsey. “And without measurements there can be no science…when it comes to love, we’re all in the dark.”
David Schwartz is the chief curator of the Museum of the Moving Image.