The Thinker

Review: Kinsey

Much of what I learned about sex I learned from reading Dr. Albert Kinsey. While my parents would have given me more detailed facts of life had I pressed them on it, I didn’t want to ask them and they didn’t want to answer them. The schools I attended in the 1960s and 70s did not offer any useful sex education. My formal sex education basically consisted of one morning spent with an embarrassed priest who tried unsuccessfully to talk to my 7th grade class about sex. It’s hard to imagine a worse source of sex information than a priest who thinks sex is generally sinful and sexual abstinence is a virtue. This left me and millions of other adolescents with a sex education that was often more erroneous than accurate.

Fortunately there was the public library. Stashed on its shelves were The Kinsey Reports. In the relative safety of the library I read excerpts that to this day surprise me. In a sense it was a very dry read, with crucial information buried deep within tables. Getting through the scientific acronyms like coitus was a bit challenging for a sixteen year old. But I gathered enough information to realize that a lot of what I thought I knew about sex was wrong. The world of human sexuality was full of a lot more variety than I had imagined. I learned that homosexual behavior in children and adolescents was so common it was almost not worth mentioning. Even bestiality, in the rural world that characterized much of 20th century America, was almost commonplace among males.

I frankly never expected that anyone would ever make an honest movie about Albert Kinsey. Fortunately, I was wrong. Kinsey is a movie that even in 21st century America remains a very brave movie to make. It stars Liam Neeson as Dr. Albert Kinsey. Laura Linney, plays his wife Mac. This is a movie full of fine and often gutsy performances by actors well and not so well known. We get actors like John Lithgow playing Kinsey’s deeply screwed up father and the Rocky Horror man himself (Tim Curry) playing a stuffy and somewhat repressed professor who tries to discredit Kinsey’s work.

Kinsey is an astonishing and moving work of cinema. It is not astonishing because of breathtaking special effects or fancy camera work. It is astonishing because it is so unblushingly frank and candid about Albert Kinsey and his crew of scientists. Their research gave lie to the pervasive sexual myths of the age. The movie does so in a way that actually draws us into the story rather than making us rush for the exit doors. The directing is top rate and the acting is uniformly superb. Even the minor characters are wholly believable.

Alfred Kinsey himself was an oddity. He grew up in a sexually repressed house ruled by a domineering father. This was par for the course for his generation. His calling turned out to be the study of nature. As a professor at Indiana University his expertise was the obscure study of gall wasps. According to the movie his attention turned to human sexuality when he and his wife bumbled badly on their wedding night. Both married as virgins. Had he not had the perspective of a scientist and saw their sexual problem as a medical issue he might have followed his parents into an unhappy adulthood full of sexual dysfunction and hurt feelings.

Eventually Kinsey was allowed to teach a course in human sexuality. It replaced a woefully inadequate course on hygiene offered by the university. His tell-it-the-way-it-is approach quickly won him full classrooms full of eager students. At the time the frank and honest information he provided was virtually unprecedented. Americans were apparently a deeply puritanical and sexually repressed. But mostly they were woefully ignorant about sex. As word of his course and research got around his approach attracted detractors as well as admirers. But thanks to a university president who empowered him and the Rockefeller Foundation that subsidized his research he spent the middle of the 20th century involved in groundbreaking research into human sexuality. The ripples of his research are still being felt and debated today.

This is a movie that surprises the viewer with its far reaching candor. For the most part it is not sexually explicit. There are some graphic slides that might still embarrass some and a couple brief nude scenes. But you would expect this in an R rated movie. The fine writing, acting and directing throughout the movie poignantly documents the crazed and confused world of humans trying to cope with their sexuality in the mid 20th century.

As Neeson’s acting makes clear, Kinsey himself was a flawed and conflicted human being. He was also fearless. His pervasive scientific outlook colored his every action. His determination to accurately document human sexual behavior was obsessive. He documented his own sexual inclinations with surprising detachment, along with those of his wife and researchers. What he seemed unable to grasp among all his scientific research was the spiritual aspects of sexuality. The word “love” was too abstract for him to get his mind around.

This is a movie that will probably make even the most liberated human being squirm a bit in their seats. Kinsey will touch a lot of your sensitive spots. It looks unflinchingly at human sexual behavior. We witness Kinsey’s own bisexuality and the havoc the encounter with one of his researchers inflicted on his marriage. We see his teenagers discuss their sex lives at the dinner table as if they were talking about a shopping at the mall. When his book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male is finally published we witness a public that at first that cannot get enough of his research. But by the end of the movie the forces of Puritanism have reasserted themselves. Kinsey is hassled by Senator Joe McCarthy for not providing him lists of known homosexuals from his research. And the Rockefeller Foundation, under pressure from Congress, withdraws its funding.

That this movie did not do better at the box office is due, I suspect, to how the subject matter still makes many of us cinema fans uncomfortable. We want sex in our movies in predictable formats. We expect unrealistic portrayals of sex in the cinema. What we get in Kinsey is honest human sexuality, which is at times appalling and at other times incredibly touching. But make no mistake – only modest success at the box office doesn’t mean this is not in many was a landmark movie. Kinsey manages to do what all of the best movies do: leave us better and more enlightened people than when we entered the theater. If that is your criteria for a great movie too then you must not flinch and see this movie.

Dr. Kinsey would appreciate my scientific scoring for this movie: 3.6 stars on my 4.0 scale.


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