BY LEE ROWLAND
Apart from the fact that I was forced to admit that biopic is pronounced bi’-o-pic instead of bi-op’-ic, I have nothing bad to say about Kinsey. Usually, a biopic is made because of the effect of one person’s important life on history – and Kinsey is no exception. The 1948 Kinsey report “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” caused a national crisis as vanilla households everywhere learned that the sexually abnormal behavior they had been dutifully repressing was – gasp – rather common. But what is stunning about this biopic is that Kinsey’s life would’ve made a great flick even if no one had ever cracked open the volume. His progression from galwasp etymologist to human sexual investigator really highlights the concept -perhaps alien to our generation – of the challenges of literally beginning a field of science. And then once he gets there, look out: the degree of personal melodrama enveloping Kinsey’s inner circle of researchers is consistently shocking even to a libertine like myself – and their indiscretions are thrown into deep relief by the 1950’s backdrop. Kinsey is therefore a film about a man, both public and personal, and pulls no punches with either. Plus, there’s male frontal nudity.
The biopic dutifully begins with a sweeping montage of childhood scenes, the quiet Kinsey clearly scarred by his father’s evangelical rantings about the evils of sex. John Lithgow does a good turn as his bible-thumping asexual father, and remains a consistently nasty presence throughout Kinsey’s teen years, while his son calmly rebels and gets a scholarship to study biology. Kinsey immerses himself in biology, collecting thousands of galwasps, a species of unique wasps each pinned to countless boards. The film never attempts to really defend his research or OCD-fueled drive to collect more; it simply chooses to pass silent judgment on the repetitive coldness of Kinsey’s biological beginnings, likely to highlight the almost overly-accessible and socially applicable nature of his later work.
Tall and imposing Neeson comes on as ProK, the beloved Professor Kinsey. He is frank and almost naively moral, seeming to notice no societal boundaries usually hyper-evident to Communist-era America. Laura Linney enters the picture as one of Kinsey’s first grad students, an endearing freethinker who wins his heart by making small talk about the galwasps and tromping through the local woods. She actually equivocates at his first proposal, calling him a bit too ‘preachy,’ which infuriates Kinsey and likely drives him to separate his life and work farther from his conservative family origins. His fury is our first clue that Kinsey thinks of himself as a real outlier; and subsequent scenes contrasting Kinsey’s forthright answers to students’ biological questions with the teachings of the school’s medical professor, played by Tim Curry, who covers sex only through horror show photos of advanced syphilis.
Gradually Kinsey discovers the limitations of Curry’s ‘sex ed.’ His grad students, many newlyweds exhibit an astounding ignorance about human sex. Incidentally, the casting of the transvestite transexual herself (see Rocky Horror Picture Show) as the representation of prudery in the film is one of the many clues that the filmmakers make no bones about their position on sex. So, Kinsey has an epiphany, and turns 180 degrees from the sex lives of wasps to the sex lives of WASPs. He teaches a course, discovers a hole of knowledge deeper than he suspected, and decides to plunge into the study of human sexuality, come hell or high water, in the name of science, by collecting the sexual histories of as many Americans as will talk to him.
What proceeds is hell and high water. I really can’t get into any more of the plot without depriving you of the delicious details of Kinsey’s life and work. This gem of a movie is racy enough for anyone, but full enough of social import to justify recommending it to your parents (although unless you’re a really tight clan, probably not seeing it with them – joint viewings of self-mutilations, taped masturbations, the aforementioned full frontal nudity, group extra- and intra-marital sex, and discussion upon frank discussion of personal sexual preference can get awkward). Neeson is fabulous and dynamic throughout, although it’s a bit weird to see the Oscar skills of the Holocaust savior Oskar Schindler being applied similarly to a sexual liberator. At one point, you even expect Kinsey to say “With this sex study, I could have saved one more…”
Of course, there are numerous reasons that we as law students or potential policy-makers can have a more clinical interest in Kinsey. Kinsey cracks repeatedly under the stress of a puritan funding regime: science and morality crack skulls over and over again, as funding depends on the willingness of the rich. And the willingness of the rich naturally devolves to the reception their spending patterns will receive in the press and public. Kinsey speaks to emptying crowds about the need to set aside preconceived notions of morality in order to encourage perfect science, and clearly runs out of steam as he approaches old age. We watch now in an almost unavoidable comparison to the role of science today – fortunately, without the McCarthyism.
Oh, and stay for the credits for some shots of the animal kingdom getting’ it on.