I, too, went to see Kinsey–with The Other Charlotte, in fact (see TOC’s Kinsey–Even Funnier Than Farenheit 9/11 today just below)–but I spent the entire movie waiting for the most famous episode in Kinsey’s life: the time he tied one end of a rope around his scrotum and the other end around a ceiling pipe and then jumped. But the cinematic Kinsey, played by Liam Neeson with photograph-quality fidelity to the bow-tied old perv, just got older and older and finally had a heart attack, at which point I realized that I was never going to see this particular use for hemp and central heating.
Let’s face it: Alfred C. Kinsey was a weirdo. And what made me laugh–I agree with TOC that “Kinsey” was the funniest flick I’ve seen all year–was director/screenwriter Bill Condon’s lugubrious efforts to persuade us in the audience that this was not so, that the sex- and cooked-statistics-obsessed Kinsey was actually a martyr to American midcentury prudery. But I started to chuckle helplessly when the film showed us an adolescent Kinsey out on a nature walk (he began his career as a biologist) training his binoculars onto a woodpecker. TOC leaned over and whispered to me, “Wonder what that makes him think about.”
After that, it was helpless giggles until the very last frame. A shot of a garden hose gushing water? Phallic symbol! Phallic symbol! Mrs. Alfred C. Kinsey (Laura Linney) doing it with one of her husband’s grad students while her husband was downstairs shouting, “Honey, hurry up, we can’t be late for the Rockefeller people!” A voice-over intoning statistics about the female orgasm while a flickering screen showed Kinsey’s home movies of more of those grad students humping, groaning, and wife-swapping. Getting your Ph.D. never looked so easy–or maybe so hard. Other hilarious moments: The Kinsey Family Values scene TOC mentioned in which Alfred, wife, and two teenage daughters debate the vulva over the veal roast. And how about that Kinsey wedding, when the poor bride of son Scott has to fill out the Kinsey sex questionnaire before she can make her vows? I’m sorry, but I laughed and laughed at “Kinsey,” and so did TOC.
It was only when I got home that I realized that there was something to be taken seriously about this movie: how false it was to Kinsey’s actual biography, about which we now know a great deal, thanks to James H. Jones, author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Kinsey: A Public/Private Life. Unfortunately, unlike the cinematic Kinsey, the real-life Kinsey was no martyr to the Philistine Mob. The Rockefeller Foundation eventually shut off its spigot of financing for the Kinsey Institute during the early 1950s, not because this was the McCarthy era and Kinsey’s findings were associated with communism as the movie claims (in fact, Kinsey voted Republican and purged his institute of suspected leftists), but because professional statisticians had by then thoroughly discredited his research. He relied for the info that went into his famous Kinsey Reports not on random sampling but on what he got from people who wanted to talk about their sex lives–and would you want to discuss yours with a stranger who happened to knock on your door? And prisoners (Kinsey doted on marginal types) and the denizens of gay bars (that might tell you a lot about homosexuals but not much about the vast majority of American males and females whom Kinsey claimed to describe). By today’s standards, there’s scarcely a thing in Kinsey’s 1940s research that’s considered reliable.
He was also a whole lot stranger than the driven but generally well-intentioned Alfred C. Kinsey of Condon’s film. According to Jones’s biography, Kinsey was a voyeur who not only filmed his students plus anyone else of any age who wanted to do it on camera in front of him but liked to take the whole grad-school gang on nude camping trips that he sometimes filmed. Mrs. Kinsey would serve up homemade treats after those orgies in the name of science. The increasingly frequent trips to gay bars consisted of a bit more than handing out sex questionaires. That guy TOC mentioned who’d had the 605 sexual encounters with preteen boys (plus thousands more with others) served as the source for an earnest chapter on pubescent sexuality in Kinsey’s book. Kinsey was an auditeur as well as a voyeur. And according to Jones, the episode with the testicles and the rope that the film didn’t show was only the most extreme manifestation of Kinsey’s penchant for feats of bizarro masochism that started at a young age with shoving objects up his urethra. The movie does give us one of these episodes–a scene in which Kinsey sits on the rim of his bathtub and pierces his foreskin, but the film context is that the good scientist is feeling bad because Rockefeller cut his funds and he can’t help people anymore.
There other parts of Condon’s movie that I just plain don’t believe: for example, that Kinsey’s overbearing, pathologically puritanical father (brilliantly played by John Lithgow) consented to a Kinsey sex interview in which he confessed–boo hoo!–that the reason he was so hard on his son was that he had himself been forced as a child to wear a leather strap that kept him from masturbating. Sorry, Bill Condon, that’s just not credible; the real-life Kinsey didn’t speak to his father throughout most of his adult life, and if Dad Kinsey was anything like the film’s portrayal of him, he wouldn’t have had anything to say to his son.
What Condon’s film indicates is the reluctance of the cultural elites to cease believing in Alfred C. Kinsey and the sexual liberation he wrought, despite mountains of evidence attesting to the scientific worthlessness of his sex studies. Gay-rights activists, for example, continue to cite Kinsey’s 1948 finding that 10 percent of the U.S. male population is homosexual, although all modern studies show that the actual percentage is less than one-third of that. And when Jones’s book came out in 1997, it got a snide review from sexologist Thomas Laqueur in Slate:
“Suppose Kinsey were a card-carrying homosexual masochist; it would seem to have little bearing either on his commitment to tolerance or on his scientific practice. Even if his private life were relevant, once again Jones’ unrelieved disdain for his subject obscures any possible connections.”
The cultural elite just won’t be persuaded that monument it has built to the concept of Do It If It Feels Good just might have been built on scientific sand. For some last thoughts on Alfred C. Kinsey and what he wrought, I recommend Joseph Epstein’s review of Jones’s book for Commentary:
“Alfred Kinsey was a moral revolutionary in scientist’s clothing. The science was bad, even bogus; the man himself may now be forgotten; but the revolution came to stay, with a vengeance. Kinsey’s message–fornicate early, fornicate often, fornicate in every possible way–became the mantra of a sex-ridden age, our age, now desperate for a reformation of its own.”
Perhaps it may have just that. As TOC and I giggled our way through Condon’s film, other members of the sparse afternoon audience started chuckling as well. By the time of the finale–a pastiche of snogging pigeons, pigs, porcupines, and other critters to the tune of “Fever”–laughter was ringing through the theater. The emperor Alfred C. Kinsey was, in so many ways, wearing no clothes.