In the film “Kinsey,” when someone suggests a movie of Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s book, he replies, tongue in-cheek in-joke, “I can’t think of anything more boring.” He’s almost right. Kinsey was an academic, a pedant, and perhaps that’s why “Kinsey” is so monotone and almost sterile in its approach to such an explosive subject.
Explosive? In the Paris Hilton/Desperate Housewives/”red state/blue state” era? Isn’t our DAILY discourse already oversatiated with sex?
Yes and no.
There are still “don’t go there” areas–the Michael Jackson case proves that. The debate over gay marriage. Our furor over Monica Lewinsky. On the other hand, we have gotten more permissive: “Closer,” an exploration of infidelity, edges out “Kinsey” in the Academy Awards, with the exception of a Best Supporting Actress nod for Laura Linney. The academic tone may have had something to do with it.
When I finally watched “Kinsey,” it was preceded by a promo for “Inside Deep Throat,” referring not to Pat Buchanan (who denied in a live appearance of the McLaughlin Group I attended in Palm Springs, California, that he is the “Deep Throat” of the Watergate scandal) but to the adult movie starring Linda Lovelace, which Nixon campaigned against–only to have “Deep Throat” (the source) become his undoing.
Alfred Kinsey would find this prelude to his biopic appropriate. Let’s hope he’d like Liam Neeson, who manages to rise with passion above the sterile, shrink (as in psychotherapist)-wrapped Hollywood approach to a subject that still, frankly, makes us uncomfortable. Witness the furor over Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction.” The amoral industry that spends billions trying to titillate us can’t quite get past the conventions it thinks it flouts. Which perhaps is just as well. As the superb Laura Linney, playing Clara “Mac” Macmillan explains to her husband Al after he informs her of a homosexual affair with one of his researchers (Peter Sarsgaard), “Did you ever think that those strictures are there to keep people from getting hurt?” (Mac gets her own back when the same swinging assistant asks for a little fun with her.)
Perhaps the point of the movie is that sometimes we go too far both in the applying of those strictures and in the loosening of them. Kinsey’s father, played as skillfully as usual by John Lithgow, belittles his wife, daughter and son, but proves to have been a victim of parental torture himself with regard to sex. Interestingly, the father-son friction spans four generations of the Kinsey family when Kinsey starts to pick on his own son. “Have you learned nothing? Nothing?” Mac exclaims.
Then there is the homosexual man who Kinsey interviews. While childhood is pretty darn short these days the idea of the young man’s father and brother branding him for prepubsecent same-sex exploration seems excessive. Kinsey’s cross-country interviews reveal parents beating and shunning their own children for sexual behavior.
That said, “Kinsey” doesn’t seem to advocate total permissiveness. Even Dr. “Don’t be judgmental” Kinsey and one of his assistants strive to maintain objectivity when interviewing Kenneth Braun, a subject they’ve courted for a decade because of his meticulous cataloguing of his sexual history. Braun, was, apparently, a major source of data for Kinsey.
Although the scene is only eight minutes long, it’s easily one of the most powerful in the entire movie, thanks to the casting of gifted character actor William Sadler as Braun. Sadler, who has a history of playing villains (“Die Hard 2”), convicts (“The Shawshank Redemption”), and shady characters (“Rush”), and even frank sex talkers (“When did you last have an orgasm?” he asks his daughter in the short-lived series “Wonderfalls”), ably and unflinchingly choreographs his way through Braun’s litany of perversions (sex with children, animals, and seventeen members of his family) with bare, raw honesty. In an extremely bold move even for today’s audiences, the script has Braun prove he can get an erection within ten seconds and achieve onanistic self-satisfaction. While Kinsey’s assistant decides Braun is a little too repugnant, Kinsey maintains his “professional distance” until Braun challenges Kinsey’s own orthodoxy by insisting that Kinsey’s doctrine is “if it feels good, do it.” Since Kinsey is never clear on his own doctrine, it’s no wonder he reacts badly to Braun. Braun derides him as “square.”
But for all this, Kinsey’s story, which begins with one of Kinsey’s assistants (Chris O’Donnell, shedding his clean-boy image) interviewing him and providing a framing narrative for the movie, is one of love–love for his subject, love for Mac, and just possibly, learning to love himself. “When it comes to love, we’re all in the dark,” he explains. He’s taught this lesson by the magnificent Lynn Redgrave, for whom his book has made a difference. “Thank you, Dr. Kinsey,” she says. “You saved my life.”
Perhaps “Kinsey” might seem a bit of “same old same old” in our jaded culture. But the movie reminds us of our common humanity, and if we have to talk about sex and wasps to realize that, it’s worth the price of admission.