WHEN IT COMES TO SEX, AMERICA HAS long been queasily stranded between prudery and prurience, never more so than now, when our cultural hall monitors are finger-wagging fundamentalists and our champions of sexual freedom are porn-site operators. Even as AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases force us to spend more time talking about sex or watching it than actually doing it, we remain obsessed, often in unsavory ways—and I'm not just talking about smut. On the evidence of last week's election, more people are taking an inordinate interest in what gay men and women do in the privacy of their own bedrooms. And only the other day I heard a concerned mother, no doubt one of the many who voted Bush into his second term, wax plaintive on NPR about the irresponsibility of sex education in high schools, where advice on contraception is afforded equal time with abstinence counseling.
What Alfred Kinsey, a pioneer of whatever liberty the American libido managed to snatch for itself in the 20th century, would think of our carnally benighted new age is not hard to guess. Scientist, activist and (once he got the hang of it) swinger extraordinaire, Kinsey was a passionate believer in the liberating power of knowledge. I have no doubt he'd have judged that concerned mother to be both a spoilsport and a public-health risk, accountable in part for the epidemic of STDs and unwanted pregnancies. Had he lived, Kinsey would certainly have cheered on the sexual revolution of the '60s, an era he arguably helped spawn. But to judge by Bill Condon's smart, humane new movie about the exhilarating tangle that was Kinsey's life and work, he was no hippie—though I suspect that, for professional and other reasons, he wouldn't be averse to time spent on Internet porn sites given half a chance.
Condon, who made the superb Gods and Monsters, a life of the barely closeted Bride of Frankensteindirector James Whale, has said he wanted to avoid making a staid biopic of Kinsey, and it's true that Kinsey is jazzed by stylistic bells and whistles that make the movie great fun to watch. It's framed by reconstructions, by turns wickedly funny and ineffably sad, of the up-close interviews Kinsey and his gung-ho researchers conducted with solid citizens, whores, gay barflies and sex maniacs all over America, culminating in an entertaining map of the country dotted with voluble talking heads, their tongues loosened by Kinsey's candid questioning. Mostly, though, the camera is poignantly turned on Kinsey himself to probe what transformed him from a repressed nerd into the sexual radical he became.
Still, the film is a biopic, diligently covering the historical bases, now common knowledge from biographies and T.C. Boyle's flawed but readable recent novel The Inner Circle(see Cornel Bonca's "Fumbling Toward Ecstasy," Nov. 12). Condon guides us methodically through Kinsey's oppressive childhood with a rigidly puritanical father (judiciously underplayed by John Lithgow); the famous "marriage course" at Indiana University to which hundreds of students flocked, ravenous for sexual information and confirmation of what they were already doing under wraps; his marriage to Clara McMillen, the free-thinking chemistry student who became his partner in all his experiments on and off the curriculum; the establishment of the Institute for Sexual Research, where Kinsey collected varieties of human sexual behavior with the same impassioned zeal he'd brought as a young zoologist to the study of the gall wasp; his leap to fame with the publication of his vast report on male sexuality; and his recruitment of his research team for after-hours activities that brought out the polysexual in all of them and, in some cases, ruined their lives.
Kinsey is a work of passionate advocacy by an openly homosexual filmmaker, but Condon doesn't make the mistake of appropriating Kinsey as a gay icon, even though the former prude embraced his homosexual side with gusto once he discovered it and controversially credited a third of America's male population with homosexual proclivities. Nor is this a hagiography. On the contrary, the movie's strength lies in its portrayal of a many-sided genius, as manipulative as he was charming and persuasive, monomaniacal to a fault, generous and sweet yet utterly clueless about the emotional havoc he wrought in the name of science, and like all crusaders for society, with more than a touch of the fanatic about him. According to Condon, Kinsey's tragedy was that he was his father's son. His triumph was that he managed to get over it.
Most movingly, though, Kinsey is also a fleshed-out portrait of a highly unusual marriage. The movie is also often very funny, as any film would be that featured Tim Curry as a crusader for abstinence, and it's hard to imagine a less likely looking pair of sexual adventurers than Kinsey (Liam Neeson) and Clara (Laura Linney). Like Nick Nolte, another big lug who'd have been just as good in the role, Neeson can be bearish, cuddly, wounded and unwittingly dangerous all at once. Awkward in tweeds, bow tie and porcupine hair, Neeson's Kinsey, or Prok as he was affectionately (and otherwise) known to students and colleagues, is an ungainly professorial type with no gift for small talk. Condon's sporadically stiff screenplay feels appropriate to a man who, for all his charisma, was so ill-attuned to the social signals of others that he could speechify for hours without noticing their eyes glaze over.
We see Kinsey in early manhood, sexually untutored and so hopelessly confused about what to put where in bed that his wedding night is an unmitigated disaster—and not just for anatomical reasons. One visit to a doctor and a frank talk between the sheets later, the pair are enjoying a rip-roaring sex life—and not only with one another. In a way, the film belongs less to Kinsey than it does to Clara, sensitively rendered by Linney as a woman of such breadth of vision that she can see where her husband can't both the joy of free sex and its terrible costs. For all her luminous beauty, Linney is at once the most adventurous and least vain of actresses. I doubt she'll be gaining 50 pounds or strapping on a false nose for the sake of an Oscar any time soon, but as Clara (Mac to the couple's intimates), she does stupendous things with a bit of wrinkle makeup and her own elastic emotional range. Thin, brown and freckled, mousy Mac is also, as it turns out, game for almost anything, including bedding at least one of her husband's young research associates (ably played by Peter Scarsgaard, Chris O'Donnell and a deliciously sleazy Timothy Hutton). Yet it's also a deeply hurt Mac who spells out for her clueless husband the emotional toll exacted by his relentless pursuit of the sexual diversity he regards as normal. "Did you ever stop to think," she cries to her uncomprehending spouse, "that those social restraints were meant to stop people from hurting each other?" The dilemmas she poses will be entirely familiar to any '60s graduate who had to listen to a euphoric partner tell them they slept with someone else or several someone elses for the good of their relationship and the cause of free love. Condon doesn't take a position on this. He's showing us that everything has its price and that it is often precisely those visionary enough to push a whole society forward who also have a tin ear for the suffering they cause to those closest to them.
As I write, George W. Bush is crowing over a victory he is said to have won on a platform of moral values. Were he alive today, Kinsey would gnash his teeth over the armies of concerned mothers who voted Bush back in (the sad downside of getting out a female vote that went missing by a stunning 22 million in 2000), not to mention the 11 states that elected to ban gay marriage—surely more an attack on gay lifestyles than a defense of heterosexual marriage. This outcome is a sad reflection on a crucial line in the movie that must surely be a direct quote, Kinsey's impassioned plea that "Sexual morality needs to be reformed, and science will show the way." Yet the fact that gay marriage is up for debate at all is, to some degree, a function of his legacy. At the end of Kinsey, a straight-looking middle-aged woman (played by Lynn Redgrave, who also gave a hilariously mournful reading of James Whale's faithful housekeeper in Gods and Monsters) gives radiant thanks to Kinsey for helping her take a leap that transformed her life. Kinsey died at 62, arguably of a broken heart after the Rockefeller Foundation withdrew his funding and America's morality police drew the line at his findings that women masturbated, had real orgasms and even cheated on their husbands. But he never stopped working, and his heritage lives on in the intensity of our public quarrels about sex and in the range of "unnatural practices" he fought to establish as lying within the definition of what is normal.
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IF ALFRED KINSEY DISCOVERED SEX AND ran with it, J.M. Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan and is the subject of the new movie Finding Neverland, may never have gotten it off the ground. By many accounts, the Edwardian Scot, famous for writing the play that captured the imaginations of kids the world over and established kiddie lit as a lucrative market, had a habit of attaching himself to other families, most notably the Llewellyn Davieses, a family with five boys whom he met and befriended in London's Kensington Gardens. Marc Forster's surprisingly wan film (coming from the director of Monster's Ball), adapted by David Magee from a play by Allan Knee, strongly suggests not only that Barrie (Johnny Depp) drew on his relationship with the boys for Peter Pan, but also that the play was written in the throes of romantic love for their mother, Sylvia (Kate Winslet).
I'm all for free adaptation, and I'm willing to believe that just about anyone who has laid eyes on Kate Winslet would fall in love on the spot. But this interpretation seems to be a strategic if distorting avoidance of Barrie's intense relationship with children—you don't have to believe, as some do, that he was a pedophile to say children awoke whatever passed in him for libido—and the fact that he was always a big kid himself. The movie spans a period of several years in which Barrie, trapped in a loveless and probably sexless marriage to a tight-assed social climber (Radha Mitchell), takes up with the Llewellyn Davieses and gestates the play that will make his career.
Much buzz is being generated about Depp's performance being Oscar-worthy, about which I can only say that he does a highly credible Scottish accent. Unfortunately, it's the wrong one, a broad brogue more worthy of a Glasgow shipyard worker than of the effete patrician Barrie. Depp is warmer than I've ever seen him, but his performance is strangely muted and grave for a man who liked nothing better than to frolic with a bunch of kids. Winslet is radiant and earthy as ever, even as she sickens unto death. Julie Christie is wonderfully acidic as Sylvia's controlling mother, and Dustin Hoffman is good for a few laughs as Barrie's long-suffering producer. But they're all upstaged by one little boy (Freddie Highmore) who plays the Llewellyn Davieses' youngest son, who lets Barrie know in no uncertain terms that not he, but Barrie himself, is the true inspiration for the boy who never grew up. It's the one moment of truth in a flat, timid picture that only gathers steam in its last half-hour, and though I don't believe in giving Oscars to little kids—even the best are usually following very close direction—I'd waive the rule for young Highmore. The final scene, in which the sorrowing child, his thin little face pinched with grief, sits with Barrie on a park bench and buries his face in the playwright's coat, transcends its schmaltzy intent and becomes the high point in what is otherwise, as Peter Pan might have put it, an awfully small adventure.
KINSEY was written and directed by BILL CONDON; Produced by GAIL MUTRUX; and stars Liam Neeson and Laura Linney. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana; FINDING NEVERLAND was directed by MARC FORSTER; written by DAVID MAGEE, based on the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by ALLAN KNEE; produced by RICHARD N. GLADSTEIN and NELLIE BELLFLOWER; and stars Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. Now playing countywide.