Political Film Society - Newsletter #211 - November 15, 2004

November 15, 2004


In 1948 and 1953, Alfred C. Kinsey published the two books that ushered in the sexual revolution. The film Kinsey, directed by Bill Condon, is a biopic that explains how and why he wrote on the subject, including flashbacks to key aspects of his youth. The film is based on the biography, Alfred C. Kinsey: Sex the Measure of All Things (1998), by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy. Born in 1894 in Hoboken, Kinsey's father (played by John Lithgow), an engineering professor, is so authoritarian that he often retreats to the woods to study nature, then rebels in high school, and goes to college on scholarship, eventually receiving his doctorate in biology at Harvard in 1920. His life ambition, to amass more than four million specimens of the gall wasp in order to better understand evolution, is fulfilled after twenty years, during which Kinsey (played by Liam Neeson) rises from assistant professor to full professor at Indiana University by 1929. Despite his arcane research focus, he attracts the attention of a particular student, Clara McMillen (played by Laura Linney), and they wed in 1921; after they marry, they require the service of a physician so that they can enjoy a healthy sex life together. A meticulous and rigorous scholar, Kinsey becomes annoyed that a colleague at Indiana University teaches a course on marriage by repeating maxims that have no scientific basis, and he finally becomes one of eleven faculty who team-teach the course. Kinsey's scientific approach prompts students to ask him for advice on matters sexual. When he realizes that he cannot give answers based on objective studies, Kinsey decides to embark on sex research, thereby becoming a twentieth century Galileo. Supported by the president of the university, Herman Wells (played by Oliver Platt), he obtains support from Rockefeller Foundation for the research that results in the pathbreaking Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Kinsey provides details on his methodology, which involves asking a large battery of specific questions face-to-face to a sample of 18,000 persons across the United States.

Before doing so, he trains interviewers to elicit veridical answers, and indeed Kinsey may serve as a basic training film about interviewing techniques. Another research tool is to photograph lovemaking for later content analysis. Kinsey discovers that there is an enormous variety of human sexual behavior, and many statistical findings are counterintuitive if not shocking: What is considered "normal" from a moral standpoint prior to his studies often turns out to be a statistical outlier. At one point, a male student and later coauthor of the first book, Clyde Martin (played by Peter Sarsgaard), proposes some participant observation--that he should discover for himself what homosexual lovemaking is all about. Although his spouse is shaken on learning of the encounter, Kinsey informs her that she is also free to have sex with Martin, and she takes him up. Of course, Kinsey's first two books disturb preachers across the country, who believe that he has endorsed behavior long considered immoral. As a result, Rockefeller Foundation withdraws financial support for his next project--on sex offenders, whom he believes have been convicted of behavior that is widespread throughout the country but are imprisoned only because they cannot afford a lawyer to defend them. The board of regents of Indiana University also refuses to support him. Kinsey appears before a Congressional committee that wants to know names of homosexuals working for the federal government in his studies as well as his supposed political agenda. Kinsey considers his role to be a scientist who collects objective data and reports conclusions based on the data, nothing more, though he decries the fact that even the Library of Congress has over the years discarded publications of scientific importance because they were considered salacious. Ultimately, Kinsey has to abandon his ambition to do research for several more books; he returns to his respect for nature in order to gain peace of mind, but dies in 1956 at the age of sixty-three, broken by the forces arraigned against him. The scientific imperative that drives him is now being carried on by others, though his findings have been disputed. The Political Film Society has nominated Kinsey as best film exposé of 2004, demonstrating the political consequences of undertaking scientific research on a subject that raises hackles with the morality police of the day. The film is released coincidentally just after an election in which more than one-fifth of the voters claimed that the most important factor in selecting a president were their different stands on abortion and homosexuality, perhaps a sign that Kinsey's influence has eroded significantly some fifty years after his death.  MH