What Sexual Revolution? Alfred Kinsey Scandalised Fifties America with His Pioneering Research into Sexual Behaviour. Now Writer-Director Bill Condon Faces Renewed Outrage at His Film on the Subject

The Evening Standard (London, England), December 30, 2004 | Go to article overview

What Sexual Revolution? Alfred Kinsey Scandalised Fifties America with His Pioneering Research into Sexual Behaviour. Now Writer-Director Bill Condon Faces Renewed Outrage at His Film on the Subject


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. …

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