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Alfred Kinsey Movie: Aseptic Narrative vs. Messy Reality

9 minutes read

Alfred KinseySexologist Alfred Kinsey: Criticized by some for his methodology and by others for daring to delve into the issue of human sexuality, the Kinsey Scale creator became one of the most admired and one of the most reviled personages of the 20th century.
  • Bill Condon’s Kinsey vs. the actual Dr. Alfred Kinsey: Audience-friendly dramatic liberties vs. real life.
  • Politically motivated accusations of pedophilia?
  • How scientifically reliable is the Kinsey Scale?

Bill Condon’s Kinsey takes the usual ‘dramatic liberties’ in its depiction of the life and times of revolutionary sex researcher Alfred Kinsey

Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

Controversial American sexologist Alfred Kinsey (1894–1956) – perhaps best remembered for the Kinsey Scale measuring sexual orientation – is the subject of writer-director Bill Condon’s generally well-received biopic Kinsey, starring Liam Neeson (Best Actor Academy Award nominee for Schindler’s List, 1993) in the title role.

It should be noted that Condon has some previous experience in the off-the-sexual-beaten-path biopic genre. In early 1999, he won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Gods and Monsters, a fictionalized, highly sympathetic portrayal of gay Hollywood filmmaker James Whale (Frankenstein, Waterloo Bridge), played by Best Actor nominee Ian McKellen.

Unlike Gods and Monsters, however, Kinsey is supposed to be a straightforward biopic. In The Guardian, historian Alex von Tunzelman gives the film a solid A- “history grade,” but adds that it offers “a very forgiving take” on its subject. In fact, Kinsey has been challenged in some quarters for, at least occasionally, bypassing the facts when they failed to fit into Condon’s thematic purpose.

Below are several instances when the filmmaker – and/or the project’s backers – decided either that fiction would be more compelling than the truth, or that the facts weren’t engrossing enough to merit any screen time.

Gay seduction scene

Perhaps the most important fact vs. fiction example is one crucial Kinsey scene showing Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s assistant and co-researcher Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard) seducing the sexologist in a Chicago hotel room.

Clyde Martin: Have you ever done anything about it? [“It” being Kinsey’s sexual attraction to men as well as women.]

Dr. Kinsey shakes his head.

Clyde Martin: Would you like to?

And off to their latest experiment they go.

Yet according to Kinsey’s biographers, the researcher was the one pursuing the much younger Martin (1918–2014), who eventually became his somewhat reluctant sex partner.

However unhistorical (and unethical), the decision to switch the roles around makes perfect dramatic sense. Portraying the iconoclastic sex researcher as what is now routinely referred to as a “sexual predator” would undoubtedly have made the film’s unorthodox hero quite a bit less sympathetic to the (in their own view) “more enlightened” early 21st-century audiences.

And in all fairness, the Alfred Kinsey-Clyde Martin relationship could hardly be reduced to a case of “predator after prey”: together, they – along with fellow researcher Wardell B. Pomeroy (Chris O’Donnell in the movie) – would author the epoch-making 1948 tome Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.

The Kinsey family

Alfred Kinsey and his wife, née Clara Bracken McMillen (1898–1982), had four children following their marriage in 1921. Only three are shown in Kinsey. The couple’s firstborn, Don, died from diabetes-related complications shortly before his fifth birthday. Laura Linney (Best Actress Oscar nominee for You Can Count on Me, 2000) plays Clara in the biopic.

Another family-associated fact-to-fiction change concerns Kinsey’s radical Christian father, Alfred Seguine Kinsey (played by a fire-and-brimstoning John Lithgow). In Bill Condon’s film, after the death of his mother, Sara (Veronica Cartwright), Dr. Kinsey pays a visit to his father; in reality, the last time the researcher saw Kinsey Sr. was prior to the latter’s divorce.

Update: Laura Linney turned out to be Kinsey’s sole Academy Award nominee, in the Best Supporting Actress category. She ultimately lost to Cate Blanchett for her portrayal of another real-life character, Katharine Hepburn, in Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator.

Peter Sarsgaard Clyde Martin KinseyPeter Sarsgaard as Clyde Martin, Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s sex/sex research partner in both the movie and real life. One key difference: According to screenwriter-director Bill Condon, Martin was the pursuer; according to Kinsey’s biographers, he was the pursued.

Censorship & ‘communism’ woes

In 1947, two years after the end of World War II, Dr. Alfred Kinsey founded the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University in Bloomington.

The following year, the revolutionary – and hugely successful – Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was published. The extensive work on the book had been largely funded by the Rockefeller Foundation through its National Research Council’s Committee for Research in the Problems of Sex, which at the time was providing Kinsey with $40,000 a year.

The polemical publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953 resulted in the Rockefeller Foundation being attacked by right-wing and religious leaders at a time when the United States was in the grip of endemic anti-Red hysteria. Kinsey and his work were perceived as a clear and present danger to American morality – and thus a useful tool for the Soviet Union and communists of all stripes.

The Rockefeller Foundation ceased its support of Kinsey’s sexuality research in 1954.

In Bill Condon’s film, the Kinsey Institute sues U.S. Customs after the Indianapolis customs collector confiscates sexually related materials in 1950. Although not seen on screen, the Institute ultimately won the legal battle in Federal District Court in 1957. By that time, the researcher had been dead for a year.

During that troubled period, Indiana University was a rare voice offering public support for the Institute. Subsequent to the release of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, the university’s president, Herman B. Wells, declared:

“Indiana University stands today, as it has for 15 years, firmly in support of the scientific research project that has been undertaken and is being carried out by one of its eminent biological scientists, Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey. The University believes that the human race has been able to make progress because individuals have been free to investigate all aspects of life. It further believes that only through scientific knowledge so gained can we find the cures for the emotional and social maladies in our society. … I agree in saying that we have large faith in the values of knowledge, little faith in ignorance.”

Accusations of pedophilia

According to Kinsey Institute Senior Research Fellow and former director John Bancroft, politically motivated anti-Kinsey factions have focused on the subject of child-adult sexual contact to discredit the researcher.

In the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Bancroft wrote that since the late 1980s various allegations that Dr. Alfred Kinsey had been involved in the sexual abuse of children have “persisted as the main plank in the case of those on the Religious Right who seek to discredit Kinsey. In recent years, when there has been anxiety bordering on hysteria about child sexual abuse, often resulting in circumstances where the accused is regarded as guilty until proved innocent, what better way to discredit someone?”

The Kinsey Institute has publicly denied accusations that the sexologist conducted experiments with children.

Bill Condon’s film touches on the subject only once, when we see Liam Neeson/Alfred Kinsey explaining to a pedophile that he doesn’t condone forced sex.

Liam Neeson Dr Alfred KinseyLiam Neeson as Dr. Alfred Kinsey: Prior to Kinsey, the Northern Irish actor earned critical accolades for his portrayal of another contentious figure of the first half of the 20th century, German businessman Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List.

The Alfred Kinsey Scale: Scientifically reliable despite skepticism?

Though barely mentioned in Bill Condon’s movie, the Alfred Kinsey Scale and the researcher’s methodology have been much criticized. One pivotal issue has been the composition of the survey group that eventually led to the creation of the scale: mostly volunteer subjects (as opposed to random samples), about 25 percent of them current or former prison inmates, and another 5 percent consisting of sex workers.

Prominent psychologists warned Kinsey about the unreliability of data based on information originating mainly from volunteers, but the researcher refused to consider the criticism. In addition, Kinsey’s statistical methodologies and incomplete demographic data have been put into question.

Yet despite these flaws, Kinsey’s research may be no more inaccurate or tendentious than modern studies on human sexuality. In his review of James H. Jones’ Alfred Kinsey biography Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life, Dr. Martin Duberman, Distinguished Professor of History at CUNY, wrote in The Nation:

“Paul Gebhard (one of Kinsey’s co-authors and his successor as director of the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research – he retired in 1982), himself reacting to criticism leveled against the two volumes [Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female], spent years ‘cleaning’ the Kinsey data of its purported contaminants – removing, for example, all material derived from prison populations in the basic sample. In 1979, Gebhard, with Alan Johnson, published The Kinsey Data, and – to his own surprise – found that Kinsey’s original estimates held: Instead of Kinsey’s 37 percent, Gebhard and Johnson came up with 36.4 percent; the 10 percent figure [for homosexual behavior/orientation] (with prison inmates excluded) came to 9.9 percent for white, college-educated males and 12.7 percent for those with less education. And as for the call for a ‘random sample,’ a team of independent statisticians studying Kinsey’s procedures had concluded as far back as 1953 that the unique problems inherent in sex research precluded the possibility of obtaining a true random sample, and that Kinsey’s interviewing technique had been ‘extraordinarily skillful.’ They characterized Kinsey’s work overall as ‘a monumental endeavor.’”

“Alfred Kinsey Movie: Aseptic Narrative vs. Messy Reality

Regarding Bill Condon’s Kinsey, Paul Gebhard remarked that “for artistic reasons, they took some liberties with facts, but basically, it’s an excellent film.” He added that Liam Neeson should get an Academy Award for his efforts. (As mentioned above, Laura Linney ended up being the Alfred Kinsey biopic’s only Oscar nominee.)

Liam Neeson (Alfred Kinsey) and Peter Sarsgaard (Clyde Martin) Kinsey movie images: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

“Alfred Kinsey Movie: Aseptic Narrative vs. Messy Reality” last updated in October 2023.

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