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KINSEY: RX for Sex
by Lawrence Ferber
2004-11-17

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Pictured Liam Neeson stars, Neeson with Laura Linney and director Bill Condon.

Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey spent his life attempting to cure early 20th Century America of one of its most widespread, deeply ingrained ails: sexual repression.

His pair of groundbreaking, bestselling published studies, 1948's 'Sexual Behavior in the Human Male' and 1953's 'Sexual Behavior in the Human Female,' not only broke the silence surrounding sexuality—straight, gay, and otherwise—but shattered it, screaming loud and clear. He invented the famed 'Kinsey Scale,' which measures the varying degrees of sexual orientation, '0' representing completely heterosexual, '6' being exclusively homosexual. His research—which included some 9,000 interviews—also yielded the '10-percent' approximate gay population figure.

In the new film, Kinsey, openly gay Oscar-winning writer/director Bill Condon ( Gods and Monsters ) brings the professional accomplishments, adversities, and intricate personal life of this legendary American sex researcher to the silver screen.

Raised by a bitterly conservative Methodist ( John Lithgow ) , the young Kinsey ( Liam Neeson ) flees home for more liberal surroundings at Bowdoin College Harvard University. He lands a job teaching zoology at Indiana University and falls in love with open-minded student Clara ( Laura Linney ) . Both virgins, their wedding night sex goes terribly—it's painful, and something seems wrong. Over time sex doesn't improve, so they seek advice from a physician. His shocking candidness about this forbidden subject makes a world of difference and changes their lives. Realizing many other young couples and individuals were and are also in the dark about sexuality, partly thanks to misinformed educators like Thurman Rice ( Tim Curry ) , Kinsey decides to make it a focus of his work. With backing from the University and Rockefeller Foundation he recruits a team of researchers including Clyde Martin ( Peter Sarsgaard ) , Wardell Pomeroy ( Chris O'Donnell ) and Paul Gebhard ( Timothy Hutton ) . They encourage people to speak freely of their sexual lives, compiling thousands of intensive interviews.

In 1948 their 'Sexual Behavior in the Human Male' is published, sending shock waves throughout the country and elevating Kinsey to a celebrity ( Cole Porter's 'Too Darned Hot' was one of several songs inspired by/dedicated to him ) . But Kinsey's sexual research isn't just vicarious, pen-and-paper, and clinical: he and his team delve firsthand into sexual diversity themselves, sometimes filming the experiences. But when a lusty bisexual triangle develops between Kinsey, Clara and Clyde, it becomes clear that sex can come with emotional complications.

Prior to his 2003 Best Screenplay Oscar nomination for Chicago, Condon had been recruited by producer Gail Mutrux to develop Kinsey's life into a feature. He was already somewhat familiar with Kinsey's name and life thanks to a revealing New Yorker Magazine article, Cole Porter's 'Too Darned Hot,' and of course the famed Kinsey Scale of sexuality ( 'I would say pretty safely high up in the six direction,' he surmises of his own rating ) . From there he delved into research for more than six months, visiting Indiana's Kinsey Institute, mining a handful of biographies ( including Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's acclaimed Sex The Measure of All Things: A Life of Alfred C. Kinsey ) , Kinsey's own writings, and speaking with the late doctor's surviving friends, family members, and collaborators, including the real-life Paul Gebhard.

Condon describes Kinsey's existence as 'sort of the life of a tortured artist,' he opines. 'He was so damaged in his childhood by this overbearing, repressive father to the point where he didn't even lose his virginity until his late 20s and then had horrible first experiences. He always considered this an especially painful part of his life that he tried to help other people avoid. But like anybody you can go deep into that experience and try to figure it out and share it with the rest of the world but it doesn't cure the damage, the scars, or heal the wounds. I think in many ways he had a difficult life.'

Writing the screenplay was a difficult labor, Condon admits. 'It's always hard to get the essence of somebody's life and make sure you're dealing with all the important stuff,' he says. 'He's still a very controversial figure and I think it was just to be true to all sides of him. Even people who aren't especially sympathetic to him would feel it's a fair portrait. So it took me a long time to figure out the form of the movie, which basically became Kinsey's own sex history.'

That sex history included rather frequent homosexual experiences, and Condon was surprised by the extent to which Kinsey would 'flirt with danger' [ of being scandalized ] in the homosexual world even after he became a national celebrity. To wit, he openly cruised gay bars and even a rather infamous Manhattan bathhouse. 'He was pretty open in NYC's gay world certainly and well known,' Condon explains. 'Part of that was truly work, but I think he had a lot of different experiences. Gore Vidal used to talk about seeing him in famous gay bars at the time and there was a well-known bathhouse where Madison Square Garden is now. On 34th street, straight men would go between 5 and 6 p.m., before they got on the commuter train to go home. Kinsey went there a number of times.'

However, Kinsey's homosexual experiences weren't always exclusively for sexual sport. 'Clyde Martin was what he called one of the three loves of his life,' Condon notes. 'Clara his wife was the main one and then this other man, an unconsummated affair with a colleague [ Ralph Voris ] , in the middle of his life.'

While Condon doesn't flinch from depicting Kinsey's gay affairs, they didn't all make it into the film. Voris and the bathhouse go unseen, and there's only one sequence that takes place in a gay bar. 'There's only so much you can fit into two hours,' Condon insists. So what do we get onscreen? An extended, steamy kiss between Neeson and Sarsgaard for one thing. 'There are [ also ] little shots of them actually having oral sex with each other that you can barely see,' Condon adds. 'It's black and white in one section of the movie.' Condon says that Neeson and Sarsgaard had no problems with their more intimate scenes together—their main concern was 'to make sure they were doing it right. People are sort of curious over whether there was any special tension and the answer is no, there really wasn't on that day. They're both very, very comfortable in who they are.'

On why Neeson, who was nominated for a 1994 Best Actor Oscar for Schindler's List, made for such an ideal casting choice, Condon says 'he just fit Kinsey in so many ways. The incredible intelligence, the physical stature, the sense of being this powerful, overwhelming presence. People would describe Kinsey as a gentle giant and Liam has that quality too, there's an incredible compassion and gentleness in his soul. He's just a perfect match.'

Distributed by Fox Searchlight and produced on an indie budget ( with financing from a British company ) , Condon says that Kinsey was a difficult project to put together, but in return he was blessed with complete artistic freedom. 'There was never anybody saying to me 'don't show that' or 'let's pull back on that,'' he insists. That freedom allowed for admittedly shocking full-frontal shots of vaginas and penises ( including Sarsgaard's ) , not to mention simulated sex between Kinsey's colleagues. Speaking of those fine young colleagues, was Kinsey's real life team actually as hot as, say, Chris O'Donnell?

'They're all very good looking Midwestern guys,' Condon laughs. 'Yes. Very similar to the actors who are in the movie.' ( Some footage of the actual team members at, er, work will appear on the Kinsey DVD. )

Were any of them gay? 'Kinsey didn't believe in the term really, but specifically none of those [ main ] three were even halfway on the scale,' he notes. 'Clyde was the closest to being truly bisexual. One of them was very predominantly hetero on the scale, one was more open to everything but still more hetero. I spoke with Gebhard, the one Tim Hutton was based on. He was the one who tried [ gay sex ] once and it really didn't appeal to him and that was it.'

Kinsey was shot in and around New York, which doubled for all the film's locations. This is a rarity in filmmaking these days—usually other cities double for New York, most famously Canada. 'It came down to the inevitable choice between [ shooting in ] NY or Canada and I was just really intent, hell-bent, on shooting the movie with American actors,' Condon says. 'It's such an American story and there are so many speaking parts, little short cameos where people talk about their sex lives in very intimate detail. That became the most important thing to me so we held out for the NY shoot.'

Those cameos included John Epperson, aka Lypsinka, I Am My Own Wife Tony-winner Jefferson Mays, former child actor Harley Cross, lesbian comic Reno, William Sadler ( as a polysexual, pedophile uber-degenerate—'It's creepy because he plays it as a normal guy,' says Condon ) , and Lynn Redgrave. 'How amazing is that?' Condon gushes regarding these names. 'When you make a movie in NY you have people like that who come in for a few hours work.'

One other New York bonus: an actual Kinsey interviewee, who spoke with the doctor during the 1930s, appears in a montage sequence in which talking heads appear all over a map of the USA. 'She called me up in New York,' Condon recalls, 'I had a listed number, and then she came down and repeated the interview for us. It was so great, so fun.'

Asked what didn't make it to the film's final cut—but will likely end up on the unrated 2-disc DVD release next year—Condon says there were a handful of funny scenes including one in which 'the guys are traveling across the country and getting into trouble in a restaurant for speaking so openly about this clinical sex stuff that they come up with a code,' he reveals. 'They wanted to talk and refer to everything in code and would say 'what's new in the S&M front' and that's how that phrase got invented. Just so they could talk openly in a restaurant without offending people!'

Kinsey and his Institute's work have opened the door for more than just fetish acronyms, yet to what extent? For example, the boom of Internet porn? 'I think it probably would have happened anyway but he really did nudge it along,' Condon admits. 'Especially with that first book. Well, for one thing he was a huge collector. You go to the Kinsey Institute library and they've got every Playboy, Penthouse and everything else. The explosion of porn on the Internet really would have caused a problem for Kinsey because he was a bit obsessive about it and at a certain point you just can't collect all that stuff. So I don't think any one person is responsible for those kinds of things, they're such huge social changes, but I have to say the big two movements of the last 50 years, the gay movement and women's movement, he bears a direct responsibility for both of those.'

Asked what Kinsey might think of homosexual life and visibility in the year 2004, Condon admits, 'that's the big question. How is it different and how is it the same? I asked Clarence Tripp, who wrote The Homosexual Matrix, [ and had worked with Kinsey ] , what Kinsey would have made of the gay movement. He said 'well, he would have been horrified in some ways because it's people just identifying themselves in the context of their sexual acts.' I think he would've looked around and seen a lot of freedom but also the fact that the basic problem still hasn't been solved, which is people are just individuals. Everyone is completely different from everybody else, yet we all want to identify ourselves as one thing or another and be part of a group and conform to what the group says we should be doing. Even if these days what the group is saying is a lot more liberal than it was before, I think for him true liberation is just being yourself.'

Of course, this is also a time of strange mainstream sexual conservatism—Janet Jackson's 'Nipplegate' and Howard Stern's admonishment caused a massive stir and brought much public attention to stiff federal fines for raunchy content on network radio and television. So were Kinsey alive today, he may well be fighting some of the same governmental forces that he did in the 1950s. 'It's interesting,' Condon admits. 'Kinsey faced the last Republican Congress before the Gingrich Congress, the one elected in Eisenhower's first term. That was really the McCarthy Congress and Kinsey faced investigation by that Congress. In fact, when the Gingrich Congress was elected in 1994 there was one congressman who tried to get an investigation going on him again, so I think he would have been facing some hardship right now, as are an awful lot of sex educators and researchers. Funding is slashed once again and it's the same thing you see in the stem cell debate—people trying to impose morality on what's supposed to be purely scientific.'

While Kinsey is certain to open a whole new generation's eyes to the accomplishments and legacy of this late, great sex educator, on a storytelling level it also makes one ponder the very nature of sex, love, and how the two can mix or clash. Condon, who's happily partnered, admits making the film made him think about those issues. 'Yeah. I think anything to do with sex is pretty complicated,' he says. 'Kinsey had this idea that a strictly monogamous lifetime marriage was a slightly unnatural state that didn't exist anywhere else in nature and I think that's an issue that gay people grapple with all the time. That, as we all discovered, that issue of fidelity and monogamy doesn't necessarily connect to issues of love. But for everybody, I think no matter who you are, those are thorny things to try to figure out.'

So would he be more or less apt to hook up with somebody outside his relationship, having made the film?

Condon lets out a nervous laugh. 'Oh gosh. That is ... Kinsey had a great rule. All those personal questions can only be truthfully answered when anonymous, and I'm going to stick to his idea about it!'


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