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Kinsey (Movie 2004): Good Intentions Emasculate Sex Researcher’s Biopic

Kinsey movie Liam NeesonKinsey movie with Liam Neeson: Screened at Telluride and Toronto, Bill Condon’s biopic takes a cautious approach to the life and character of the obstinate sex researcher and co-author of two landmark tomes about Americans’ sexual behavior.
  • Kinsey (movie 2004) review: Despite – or perhaps because of – its best intentions, Bill Condon’s well-crafted biopic fails to convey the complexities of its central character, revolutionary mid-20th-century American sex researcher Alfred Kinsey.
  • As the controversial sexologist, big, bulky Liam Neeson has a robust screen presence, but Kinsey’s most memorable performances are those delivered by supporting cast members Laura Linney, Timothy Hutton, and, in a cameo, veteran Lynn Redgrave.
  • Kinsey earned Laura Linney a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination.

Kinsey (movie 2004) review: Starring Liam Neeson, Bill Condon’s well-intentioned biopic fails to portray polemical sexologist in all his undiluted audacity

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

At one point in Kinsey, writer-director Bill Condon’s biopic of polemical American sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, the doctor tells a reporter that it would be “useless” to make a film of his 1948 scholarly bestseller Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Be that as it may, the sexologist would most likely have recognized that his extraordinary life could be the stuff that great movies are made of.

Condon definitely thinks so, and his Kinsey movie is an honorable attempt to depict the life and times of the pioneering sex researcher whose studies on the sexual behavior of American men and women remain controversial to this day.

Yet despite – or perhaps because of – the filmmaker’s best intentions, Kinsey ends up being no more than a well-crafted but formulaic “message” biopic that sanitizes its subject matter while pretending to be as revolutionary in its approach to human sexuality as its offbeat hero.

From Christian sexual repression to one-man sex liberation movement

Much of Kinsey is told via flashbacks, as the researcher (Liam Neeson), in the role of subject of his own experiment, answers questions about his past.

We thus learn about his father (John Lithgow, having way too much fun), a rabidly religious part-time church lecturer who saw sex as a necessary evil for procreation. But only then.

We also learn that in the perverse environment in which Alfred Kinsey – and millions of others – grew up, non-procreational sex had to be made dangerous. Cunnilingus, we’re told, will lead to sterility. Masturbation will lead to blindness, or, via internal bleeding, to death itself.

When the young man rebels against his father’s pathological views of sex, he goes to the other extreme: from absolute sexual repression to absolute sexual liberation. Condon’s film never addresses whether he ever felt pangs of the old Christian guilt.

According to the filmmaker, Kinsey became a one-man sex lib movement: sex with males, females, or both, is but a natural means of human expression. In fact, the doctor’s medical advice includes encouraging his assistants and even his wife, Clara (Laura Linney), to be equally liberated. As found in the movie, it doesn’t take much convincing for the (almost invariably off-camera) fun to begin.

Sexual Behavior in the Human Male & its aftermath

With the 1948 publication of his first bestseller, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Dr. Alfred Kinsey becomes an internationally known figure. From then on, things begin going wrong for him.

Published in 1953, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female is greeted with outrage and disgust. American society had stared at itself in the bedroom mirror and it wasn’t at all happy with what it saw.

In the puritanical/paranoid 1950s, the controversial researcher is accused of being both a pervert and a communist. (Had Kinsey been around in the early 21st century, the rabid right would have accused him of being a “terrorist.”)

Kinsey Chris O’Donnell Timothy Hutton Liam Neeson Peter SarsgaardKinsey with Chris O’Donnell as Wardell Pomeroy, Timothy Hutton as Paul Gebhard, Peter Sarsgaard as Clyde Martin, and Liam Neeson as Alfred Kinsey.

Superficial + derivative history lesson

All of the above would be rich material for a complex, gripping drama. Even so, Bill Condon has opted for little more than a derivative, surface-scratching history lesson.

Like Paul Muni’s microbiologist in The Story of Louis Pasteur, Edward G. Robinson’s syphilis researcher in Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, and myriad other film geniuses, Alfred Kinsey is obsessed with his work. Like Rosalind Russell’s polio-fighting nurse in Sister Kenny, Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon’s radium-discovering scientists in Madame Curie, and other such visionaries, he is widely misunderstood.

Also like in most biopics, Kinsey’s dramatic goings-on feel artificial and contrived. For instance, the doctor’s homosexual feelings come as no surprise to his young, bisexual assistant, Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), even though apart from a subtle “plant” earlier in the movie there had been no indication of the older man’s two-way sexual orientation.

Later on, Clyde’s angry outburst against Kinsey’s “open door” sex policies comes across as both self-righteous and dishonest. Through his character, Bill Condon is sermonizing that sexual liberation leads to unforeseen nasty consequences (in this case, infidelity and jealousy) – as if Clyde and the other willing participants in Kinsey’s free-sex experiments were little children unaware of the emotional entanglements resulting from sexual activity. (Curiously, there’s only a brief mention of condom use in the film; back in those days, apparently no one was much afraid of venereal diseases or unwanted pregnancies.)

Kinsey’s biggest flaw

Also like the polemical heroes of previous movie biopics – e.g., Dustin Hoffman’s Lenny Bruce in Lenny and Montgomery Clift’s Dr. Sigmund Freud in Freud – Kinsey is ostracized because he dares to tell the truth to a hypocritical society that wants none of it. But unlike Hoffman’s abrasive stand-up comedian or Clift’s detached psychoanalyst, Condon’s Dr. Alfred Kinsey is an eccentric yet likable fellow. And therein lies Kinsey’s biggest flaw.

Since this is a American movie (with some German backing), one can accept hulking Liam Neeson (Best Actor Oscar nominee for Schindler’s List, 1993) cast as the hound-faced Alfred Kinsey – in real life a carbon copy of actor Tom Ewell (the quasi-errant husband in the Marilyn Monroe comedy The Seven Year Itch). On the other hand, how can one accept a sex-obsessed character who is hardly ever shown enjoying the pleasures of sex?

Even if Kinsey was more interested in documenting sex than actually experiencing it (something that is not true according to his biographers), were his clinical experiments a form of erotic stimulation? That’s a taboo subject matter as far as Bill Condon is concerned.

Therefore, we have a film about sex that is terrified of sensuality. Juvenile and clinical discussions about the topic are allowed, but real eroticism and the dreaded NC-17 rating are avoided at all costs. Most of the performances suffer as a result, since those people seem more like lab rats than real, sensual human beings. Neeson’s effectiveness, in particular, is diminished.

In spite of a realistic kissing scene with Clyde and a couple of physically intimate moments with his wife, Alfred Kinsey comes across as a bland, asexual observer. Neeson is a capable player (as long as he doesn’t have to cry), and he could have been considerably more forceful – if less “likable” – had Condon’s film actively dealt with the researcher’s unconstrained sexual behavior (including his reported masochistic tendencies), his arrogance (e.g., Kinsey ignored warnings by some scientists that his methodology was flawed), and his obsession with – or ruthlessness in – getting case histories (including those of pedophiles).

Kinsey movie Liam Neeson Laura LinneyKinsey movie with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney: Due to the bowdlerization of his character, Los Angeles Film Critics Best Actor Liam Neeson is less effective than he might have been; National Board of Review winner Laura Linney, however, does wonders with her underwritten role.

Memorable Laura Linney + Timothy Hutton

Laura Linney’s Clara, for her part, is more an appendix than an actual character. Like countless other devoted movie wives, Clara is the one who brings the researchers refreshments, cries when her husband strays, and acts as pacifier during family squabbles.

Given the limitations of this underwritten and – apart from the extramarital sex – conventional role, Linney acquits herself uncommonly well.

Likewise, several of Kinsey’s other supporting actors are quite good. That includes a handful of bit players, most notably an elderly woman who claims, “I invented it!” (“It” being masturbation) and Oscar winner Timothy Hutton (Best Supporting Actor for Ordinary People, 1980), memorable in a small role as Kinsey assistant and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female co-author Paul Gebhard.

In fact, Hutton is so good that if there is any cinematic justice he will one day star as Dr. Kinsey in a truly fearless version of the sexologist’s life.

Superlative Lynn Redgrave shows what Kinsey could have been

But Kinsey’s acting highlight is the appearance of veteran Lynn Redgrave (Oscar nominated for Georgy Girl, 1966; and Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters, 1998) as the final on-screen subject of the sex researcher’s study.

Almost unrecognizable under a Doris Day wig, Redgrave’s talking head unleashes a firestorm of emotion that is lamentably absent from the rest of the film. In that one sequence, Kinsey is at last transformed into a movie about flesh-and-blood human beings.

Had Bill Condon managed to convey throughout his film half the amount of sheer humanness generated in the Redgrave sequence, Kinsey could have been a masterpiece. As it is, this moderately daring biopic is no more than an adequate look at the life of a pivotal, contentious, and still relevant figure whose revolutionary work, if performed in the United States, would be nearly as misconstrued today as it was more than half a century ago.

Much has changed, Lynn Redgrave’s thankful character tells Dr. Kinsey. Unfortunately, however, much remains the same.

Kinsey (movie 2004) cast & crew

Direction & Screenplay: Bill Condon.
Johnathan Gathorne-Hardy and his book Kinsey: Sex the Measure of All Things get a “Thank You” credit.

Cast: Liam Neeson. Laura Linney. Chris O’Donnell. Peter Sarsgaard. Timothy Hutton. John Lithgow. Tim Curry. Oliver Platt. Dylan Baker. Lynn Redgrave. Julianne Nicholson. William Sadler. Dagmara Dominczyk. Veronica Cartwright. John McMartin. Benjamin Walker. Matthew Fahey. Will Denton. John Krasinski. Katharine Houghton. Harley Cross. Luke Macfarlane.

Kinsey (Movie 2004)” endnotes

Besides her Academy Award nomination, Laura Linney was also shortlisted for the SAG Awards and for the Golden Globes. She was also the top choice of critics groups in Florida and in Phoenix.

Liam Neeson received a Golden Globe nod in the Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama category.

Peter Sarsgaard, Chris O’Donnell, Timothy Hutton, Laura Linney, and Liam Neeson Kinsey movie images: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Kinsey (Movie 2004): Good Intentions Emasculate Sex Researcher’s Biopic” last updated in April 2023.

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