- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

NEW YORK — “Let’s talk about sex,” invites the promotion poster. “Great,” half the country says. “Ugh,” sighs the other.

“Kinsey,” opening today in area theaters, is creeping up on the holiday season like a peeping Tom in a bow tie, bulging with blunt talk about the birds and the bees and an agenda of sexual broad-mindedness. It is poised like a lightning rod in the middle of the country’s red-blue divide.

For the left, the late Alfred C. Kinsey was a pioneering sex researcher who brought the light of reason to the dark corners of taboo and reaction. For the right, he was a pseudoscientific fraud who was out to satisfy his own jollies, unmooring the culture from its traditions and norms while he was at it.

Nearly 50 years since his death, Mr. Kinsey — the man and his methods — is still red-hot. Two biographies of his life were published within three years of each other, reaching different conclusions from the same set of facts.

“He was a man of contradictions,” says filmmaker Bill Condon, who set his mind on a Kinsey biopic even before directing 1998’s “Gods and Monsters,” for which he won a best-screenplay Oscar. His interest was sparked by “juicy segments” of James H. Jones’ 1997 book “Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life,” as excerpted in the New Yorker. (Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s kinder, gentler “Sex the Measure of All Things: A Life of Alfred C. Kinsey” followed in 2000.)

The son of a disciplinarian Methodist minister, Mr. Kinsey rode his own son in the same uncompromising manner. He claimed that his research into male and female sexual behavior — the product of thousands of confidential interviews with Americans from the years right after World War II until Mr. Kinsey’s death in 1956 — was pure, disinterested science. Yet he embraced celebrity and took up the mantle of social reform.

“In biopics,” Mr. Condon observes, “it’s often a weakness that the very thing that someone’s famous for is given short shrift in the film: the writing, the painting, whatever. In this case, you could be dealing with the work and how he did it and really be revealing the man at the same time.”

Those personal secrets exposed here — an open marriage, bisexuality, bizarre experiments with his own body — overlapped with Mr. Kinsey’s public life in that he experienced the same sexual variety he believed he chronicled through his work.

In the fascinating, surprisingly funny (in the nervous-giggly way of sex-ed class) “Kinsey,” Mr. Condon believes he paints an honest picture of the man, whom Irish actor Liam Neeson portrays, professorial fashion sense and all, with a peculiar verve.

“I think the movie’s very evenhanded,” says Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Mr. Kinsey’s associate Clyde Martin, who had affairs with both Mr. Kinsey and Mr. Kinsey’s wife, Clara McMillen (Laura Linney). “If we had made a movie that just purely glorified the man, it would have honored him less.”

However distasteful his personal life (the man’s attic was like Times Square in the ‘70s), what tops Mr. Kinsey’s rap sheet, say critics such as author and researcher Judith Reisman, is his use of data collected from pedophiles. “Kinsey” doesn’t flinch, but Wardell Pomeroy (played by Chris O’Donnell, another Kinsey associate) did.

In one of the movie’s most powerful scenes, Mr. Kinsey and Mr. Pomeroy interview an omnivorous sexual criminal. Mr. Pomeroy walks out in disgust; Mr. Kinsey, refusing to compromise a self-imposed ethic of nonjudgmentalism, stays on.

Mr. Condon: “You could argue — and I think the movie would support this — that, well, he should have been arrested, or [Kinsey] didn’t go out of his way to stop this behavior.”

Second on a list of Kinsey demerits is the shaky methodology of the research team’s statistical sampling. On this, virtually everyone agrees. Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington, explains that Mr. Kinsey and crew oversampled urban and prison populations, among others.

The most commonly derided statistic from 1948’s “Kinsey Report” is that 10 percent of men are at least somewhat homosexual in orientation. (The best estimates today tend to put that number at a much lower 3 or 4 percent.)

And yet, because he was the first American scientist — from podunk Indiana University, no less — to widely chronicle sexual behavior, Mr. Kinsey’s findings are “still the baseline for today’s research,” she explains.

“Even though the statistical methodology was primitive, when they run the data through more sophisticated models, they still come out with very similar results,” Mr. Condon maintains.

It’s inevitable that “Kinsey” will be put through both sides’ ideological meat grinders. But as a movie, it’s first rate. Scientific inquiry has never crackled with so much energy before, and Mr. Condon probably isn’t mistaken when he guesses that’s “because it’s about sex.”

“It reveals your comfort level about certain ideas,” he says.

Mr. Sarsgaard, the exceptional character actor who played Charles Lane in last year’s “Shattered Glass,” thinks the director has made a tough subject “palatable to a lot of audiences.”

“He gave the movie the guise of a big Hollywood, almost Merchant Ivory-looking movie, and then slips in these ideas that are a little bit radical,” he says.

According to Mr. Sarsgaard, the more adventurous you would have seemed to Alfred Kinsey, the less likely you are to enjoy “Kinsey.”

“A lot of the humor in the movie depends on you being a little squeamish or titillated by sex,” he comments, a little paradoxically. “The tighter you are going in, the more you’ll laugh. But if you’re somebody who’s into swinging and free love, I doubt you’d find it that funny.”

In other words, blue-state city slickers will like the message but not the movie. Red-state bumpkins will like the movie but not the message.

“Kinsey” couldn’t ask for better timing.

It’s the perfect movie for the country that just can’t make up it’s mind what it thinks about sex.

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