Sex and the Kinsey Guy: While Sexual Fluidity May Attract Talented Actors like Kinsey's Peter Sarsgaard, It Seems to Frighten Away Audiences-And Oscar Voters. the Actor and His Openly Gay Directors Speculate on Why

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To understand Peter Sarsgaard's attitude about sex on the screen, look no further than the central scene from his most recent role, bisexual graduate student Clyde Martin in 2004's highly acclaimed but Oscar-snubbed Kinsey. In the sequence in question, Martin tenderly seduces his mentor, Dr. Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson), the post-war pioneer in sexual research who discovered that people have more sex with more diversity and less monogamy than anyone had previously believed. After the two men have spent an evening culling harrowing stories from the patrons of mid-1940s Chicago gay bars, Martin casually undresses in front of Kinsey back at their hotel room until he's standing before him completely, full-frontally nude--as Kinsey talks to his wife, Clara (Laura Linney), back home at Indiana University. (Martin will eventually bed her as well.)

Now, some male actors whose careers are just starting to really take off might seriously brood for days on end over the decision to bare it all; Sarsgaard loved the idea. "It makes so much sense that I would not only be nude but just be nude a second too long," the 33-year-old observes with real pride. "It doesn't mean I'm hitting on him, but if I just do it a second too long, I can check and see [if Kinsey is interested]. I liked that it would have a dramatic meaning, that it would be active nudity."

And if audiences thought the fiercely passionate kiss Sarsgaard shares with Neeson at the end of the scene was gutsy--again, no big deal. It was a bit strange, he admits, kissing a straight man he's known long enough to be chinking buddies with (they had already worked together on the Soviet-submarine thriller K-19: The Widowmaker), but really, "You just look for qualities that are attractive in [your on-screen partner], and Liam has a lot of attractive qualities. Kissing is kissing."

It's not that Martin's a predator, just blissfully open-minded about sex and insatiably curious to explore it. "I wanted to treat him like he was embryonic, in a way," says Sarsgaard, "like [he] had somehow avoided any sort of cultural stigmas in regard to sexuality, a person who was willing to learn and was willing to accept whatever his sexuality might be. Like, Oh, here's this girl, she's nice. This feels good. Oh, here's a guy. Cool."

This is not a character one sees that much in American cinema, or, for that matter, in American life. Although Sarsgaard calls Martin "probably the healthiest person, sexually, I've ever portrayed," the idea of an unsettled, changing sexuality is--let's face it--still a threatening prospect to the status quo, both gay and straight.

"I think it's one of the unfortunate things you see in the gay community, this kind of insistence on defining yourself," laments Bill Condon, Kinsey's gay writer-director. He recalls the time he asked Clarence A. Tripp, a former colleague of Kinsey's whose controversial book about Abe Lincoln's possible same-sex affairs was just published posthumously, about what Kinsey, who died in 1956, would have made of today's gay rights movement. "He said, 'Oh, he would've been horrified.' [Tripp was] a provocateur, so I think he was partly kidding, [but] the point that he was making is that anyone defining themselves by their sexual acts [alone] is in some way limiting themselves."

In his lifetime, Kinsey kept his and his staffs extramarital sexual explorations a secret; they were revealed only recently in new biographies and, of course, in Condon's film. But it seems the public is just as averse to such sexual adventurousness now as when Kinsey released his widely condemned study of female sexuality in 1953. Kinsey has grossed less than $10 million in the United States and was nearly shut out of the Oscars, which overlooked Kinsey's real-life gay writer-director and on-screen bi-dabbling male leads in favor of a single nomination for Linney, playing me stalwart, strictly hetero wife.

"Given that Neeson and Condon have been smiled upon by the academy before [Neeson with a nomination and Condon with a win]," observed Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan, "and that Kinsey is impeccably made in a traditional way, the most plausible explanation [for their snub and for Sarsgaard's] is that Alfred Kinsey's wildly unconventional, self-mutilating bisexual lifestyle was too much for enough academy members to keep the honors away. …