If sex is front and center in today's America, a nation simultaneously puritanical and porn-obsessed, Alfred C. Kinsey put it there. Nearly forgotten now, this driven, obsessive pioneer comes to the screen in "Kinsey" with a psychological complexity his contemporaries never imagined. Intelligently written and directed with a pleasing frankness by Bill Condon and well played by Liam Neeson, Laura Linney and a strong supporting cast, the film skillfully uses the forms of old Hollywood to tell a story that would have given heart failure to Harry Cohn and his fellow tycoons.
Kinsey had a huge impact on the world we live in now, preparing the way for both the gay rights and women's liberation movements. The 18,000 sexual histories collected by his team, still considered the most extensive portrait of human sexual behavior ever assembled, exposed a serious gap between public moral rhetoric and private bedroom behavior that bedevils us today.
Even more remarkably, nearly half a century after his death Kinsey manages to remain a controversial figure. Recent research has revealed that this man Time magazine once called "an almost monotonously normal human being" was unapologetically bisexual and given to masochistic behavior that extended to self-mutilation. He encouraged the married members of his inner circle, very much including his wife, to have open relationships. He not only observed people having sex, he saw to it that the activity was extensively photographed in the privacy of his attic.
How and how much this private behavior influenced the nature of Kinsey's groundbreaking work is a source of continual debate in the scientific world. And the thorny issues he raised about whether we view sexuality in a scientific or a moral context, about whether frankness and acceptance leads to immorality or frees the tormented, are as current as the recent elections.
Fitting all these questions and controversy into a film biography is a daunting task. But Condon, who wrote and directed "Gods and Monsters" and won an Oscar for the screenplay, succeeds by employing a dispassionate one that ends up echoing Kinsey's own.
Using Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's sympathetic biography as his source material, Condon instinctively understands that nothing is more effective than bringing a conventional touch to incendiary material. Though some of the controversial aspects of the life are softened, "Kinsey" has the fortitude to deal with all of them, even the genital mutilation. The form may echo venerable classics such as "The Life of Emile Zola" and "Madame Curie," but that's where the resemblance — and the squareness — ends.
Philosophically, Kinsey was a taxonomist, a measurer who became a world authority on gall wasps by spending over 20 years accumulating more than 4 million specimens. He gloried in variations, believing "without measurement there can be no science," and the film underscores his passion for objectivity as another way to make its edgy subject matter palatable.
"Kinsey," handsomely photographed by Frederick Elmes and cast by Douglas Aibel and Cindy Tolan, has chosen its actors well, starting with Neeson as the man himself. A gifted performer who has a weakness for coming on too strong, Neeson is best, as his Oscar-winning work in "Schindler's List" demonstrated, when portraying messianic personalities. Here, given the opportunity to play a terribly earnest man who, in biographer James H. Jones' words, "was determined to strip human sexuality of its guilt and repression," he gives one of his most fully realized performances.
The always effective Linney is especially good as Kinsey's wife, Clara McMillen, who ended up pushing emotional boundaries she initially had no idea even existed. She and Neeson played together on Broadway in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" and that familiarity was doubtless a factor in the deeply connected performances here. As much as anything else, "Kinsey" is a portrait of a loving marriage that stayed that way no matter how unconventional its contours became.
Initially meeting as Indiana University professor and student, the Kinseys have painful difficulties consummating their marriage. The humiliating ignorance Alfred Kinsey feels until a doctor offers a solution, coupled with his rebellion against a priggish father (a fine John Lithgow) and a passionate faith in the power of science all lead to his determination to acquire knowledge in an area no one had thought to acquire it before. One of his key accomplishments was the construction of a one-page form, so complex it took a year to learn how to use it, on which a person's entire sexual history could be recorded in a secret code of his own devising.
"Kinsey," in fact, begins with the professor instructing Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard, unshowy but impeccable as always) on the fine points of taking someone's sexual history. Later, the two men become lovers, and later still Kinsey encourages his other key colleagues (played by Timothy Hutton and Chris O'Donnell) to share their wives with each other.
It's all in the name of separating sexuality from that great and frustrating unmentionable, romantic love, the one thing that cannot be measured. But as everyone in Kinsey's circle — as well as the man himself — eventually learn, this separation is exceedingly problematic, something that fallible, emotional humans find it much easier to consider in theory than execute in practice.
Kinsey was more interested in measuring things than disturbing the status quo, but that is exactly what happened when "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" came out in 1948 and the female volume followed in 1953. Findings like the statistic that nearly half of married women had had premarital sex and the famous figure that 37% of American men had had at least one homosexual encounter called forth a firestorm of reaction that probably led to Kinsey's early death at age 63.
Kinsey's statistical methodology and the reliability of that 37% figure have been challenged, but his theory that heterosexuality and homosexuality are part of the same sexual continuum is still widely accepted. For Kinsey, and for many Americans, the notion that sexual practices are neither normal nor abnormal but simply common or rare, was nakedly revolutionary.
Condon's "Kinsey" sees the man as a prophet without honor, a pioneer ultimately scorned and unappreciated in his lifetime. The world we live in would be unimaginable without Kinsey or someone very much like him, and however much we may cringe at the excessive sexualization of the here and now, that shouldn't blind us to how much of a positive force the man and his findings were. Or to the fact that "Kinsey's" standard structure conceals a film that is daring in its willingness to insist on the basic soundness of the scientist's conclusions in the face of the current national mood.
Without preaching, without excess, without forgetting to make it dramatic, "Kinsey" reminds us that we were not better off in ignorance, not better off in a world where private behavior between consenting adults was scorned and criminalized. "There is no ocean of greater magnitude than the sexual function," Kinsey wrote in the introduction to his second book, and the guidance he provided to help navigate that sea made for a notable life and a significant film.
MPAA rating: R for pervasive sexual content, including some graphic images and descriptions
Times guidelines: Depictions of male and female nudity, masturbation and extremely graphic sexual language and situations
Liam Neeson...Alfred Kinsey
Laura Linney...Clara McMillen
Peter Sarsgaard...Clyde Martin
Chris O'Donnell...Wardell Pomeroy
Timothy Hutton...Paul Gebhard
Fox Searchlight Pictures presents, in association with Qwerty Films, a N1 European Film Produktions/American Zoetrope/Pretty Pictures production, released by Fox Searchlight. Writer-director Bill Condon. Producer Gail Mutrux. Executive producers Michael Kuhn, Francis Ford Coppola, Bobby Rock, Kirk D'Amico. Director of photography Frederick Elmes. Editor Virginia Katz. Music Carter Burwell. Costume designer Bruce Finlayson. Production designer Richard Sherman. Art director Nicholas Lundy. Set decorator Andrew Baseman. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.Exclusively at the AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City, (310) 289-4AMC; Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; and the Landmark NuWilshire, 1314 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 281-8223.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times