Byline: JEFF SIPE
BIOGRAPHY is hard enough for a writer to get right, let alone a film director. And when one person combines both roles, the difficulties are redoubled. But Bill Condon, the force behind Kinsey, was not easily deterred.
A Hollywood stalwart who learned his craft in horror and suspense films, Condon felt a sense of mission about introducing 21st century viewers to the man who first revealed the truth about sex.
Alfred C Kinsey (1894-1956) was the inventor of academic sex research, a doctor who asked questions that had never been put before, interrogating thousands of willing subjects about their sexual activity. So far, so stolid.
But two recent biographies revealed that Kinsey grew overheated about his subject matter, so much so that he, his wife and most of his research students engaged in the kind of sexual experimentation that 1950s small-town America would have considered orgiastic. How to convey those contrasts on film was the task that Condon undertook - and triumphantly overcame. But, to do so, he had to have absolute creative control.
"In order to really make you understand how revolutionary Kinsey was," says Condon, "how shocking it was to show that slide [of male and female genitalia] to a class in 1938, I think you have to create a context in which that really doesn't belong. It has to be almost in the style of another time.
And that's in the direction, in the design, in the cinematography, in the acting style and in the writing. It's like Emile Zola, in a way, a far more nuanced depiction of what's going on."
Kinsey, the movie - which received three Golden Globe nominations this month - is a largely chronological account of the sex researcher's life and work.
The adolescent Kinsey endures a father (John Lithgow) who preaches fire-and-brimstone to a fundamentalist congregation. He then embarks on a career as a zoologist at Indiana University.
There are a handful of truly disturbing scenes. One of the most uncomfortable depicts the zoologist and his virgin wife, Mac, awkwardly attempting to consummate their marriage. It was their frustration and the paucity of information about sexuality which spurred Kinsey to turn his attention away from his speciality, the gall wasp, to the most complex element of the most complicated species.
In lifting the chintz on America's bedrooms, Kinsey found a country less repressed than generally suspected.
His first book, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male, caused a furore in 1948. The book was an instant bestseller, arousing heated debate about the hitherto unmentionable. Kinsey himself came under scrutiny. The Church denounced his findings and academics his methodology. But the sting was taken out of their attacks by the evident conformity of the man, his dull, middle-American campus life.
It was only in the past decade, 40 years after his death, that evidence appeared showing that Kinsey was having homosexual affairs and encouraging his wife to sleep with his students - in the higher interests of research, of course. Kinsey came to believe that monogamy and fidelity were social constructs, unnatural to most individuals.
There were also accusations, successfully refuted by the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, that he aided and abetted paedophiles in order to study sex with children. He certainly conducted extensive interviews with child molesters, in jail and out.
In one scene, Kinsey (played by Liam Neeson) and an associate, Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), sit face-to-face with a paedophile as he tells his story.
Martin rushes out of the room, revolted. Kinsey continues the interview without turning a hair. At no time does the film shy away from confronting its subject matter. "It was really an attempt to present him, warts and all," Condon says. "It's a microcosm of a life."
He was surprised to discover how little people knew. "If you look at movies of the past year like The Passion [of the Christ] and Fahrenheit 9/11," says Condon, "people know what they think of Jesus Christ. People know what they think of George Bush. But, for the most part, people don't remember Kinsey. I think that's why the fringe groups seem to really want to define him before people get to the movie."
Kinsey has been loudly condemned by Rightwing groups such as Concerned Women for America (CWA) and the Traditional Values Coalition.
Protests were organised and announced on websites, during location shooting and at screening theatres.
"While we were shooting," recalls Condon, "we learned that there was going to be a protest, and we all arrived that day feeling pretty nervous. In the end, six people showed up and we gave them coffee and doughnuts. There was another protest planned for opening night in Los Angeles. A dozen or so protesters were there - sometimes you have to wonder if the internet isn't really just a hall of mirrors." Since the film opened in the US, there have been no more disturbances. (Kinsey is released in the UK on 4 March.) Condon was attacked as "a gay activist". "I don't know what they mean by that," he laughs. "I've never been an advocate of anything. I guess being an openly gay filmmaker is enough for them."
His credits have been mostly as a writer. Now 49, he won an Oscar in 1998 for Best Adapted Screenplay for Gods and Monsters, which he also directed, and wrote 2003's Best Picture winner, Chicago. His learning curve, though, ran through writing such chillers as Strange Behaviour (1981) and Strange Invaders (1983) and directing Murder 101 (1991) and Candyman II: Farewell to the Flesh (1995).
"Horror and suspense really are all about making the audience want to know what happens next," he says. "It was good training because, no matter what the film, if your audience doesn't want to know what happens next, you're lost."
While Kinsey cannot be confused with The Exorcist, Condon cites one scene that came straight from the horror genre. At a university meeting, Kinsey's main supporter is unable to rally continued funding for his work. Cut to a shot of Kinsey's wife, Mac, arriving home to find his record collection strewn across the living-room floor.
"She immediately knows something is horribly wrong," says Condon. "She goes upstairs and heads for the closed door of the bathroom. That's an image straight out of horror." Then, what she discovers behind the door is the real spine-tingler.
Condon maintains that he has presented a balanced approach to an intriguingly troubled life. "If you're unsympathetic to Kinsey, you'll find plenty in the film to confirm that point of view," he admits.
"But with the fringe groups, it's Anthony Hopkins in a hockey mask, or nothing."
The idea for the film came from producer Gail Mutrux. The budget was tiny, $11 million ([pounds sterling]5.75 million), but there were compensations.
"You don't have to simplify what you're doing," says Condon.
"You're not aiming for the lowest common denominator. This is the antithesis of Hollywood bread-andbutter, the simplistic blockbuster."
Condon started out with no strong opinion about Kinsey, pro or con. "I was interested enough to go through the material, and then it just got more and more interesting."
Black-and-white footage of Kinsey and his associates taking down sex histories flickers through the film. "It was only in the second draft that I said to myself, 'Okay, what's unique to Kinsey?' and high on that list was the sex-history technique that he developed and the fact that he incorporated his own sex history and I thought, 'Oh, my god, is it that simple?'" Cinematographer Frederick Elmes suggested that the interviews, "being the most clinical part of the film, should have this clinical approach".
Condon derived his design concept from the archives at the Kinsey Institute.
"I had shown Frederick and Richard Sherman, the designer, some pictures that I had seen at the Kinsey Institute.
They were pictures of a naked man sitting before a great wall of graph paper, and in each picture, his erection gets bigger. And Richard immediately said, 'That could be our visual scheme.' "It was a real challenge to work out the visual ideas because, in its own way, the movie is really a talkingheads picture. That's what Kinsey did. He got people to talk to him."
Many would argue that he did much more, that he was nothing less than the father of the sexual revolution and the main force for bringing sex out of the dark ages and into the light. Others blame him for every societal ill, from abortion to gender confusion.
History's judgment remains elusive. On the balance of this film, Kinsey was a high- minded researcher who struggled to distinguish between science and advocacy while quantifying a human activity that continues to defy all rational explanation.…