Kinsey

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away — America in the 1940s — men did not talk about sex. They did it, of course. But blunt, clinical talk about the penis and how to play with it? Nada. Alfred Kinsey, a biology prof at Indiana University with a specialty in gall wasps, decided to see if the mating insects had anything in common with humans. He hired a research team to ask embarrassing questions of volunteers and, in 1948, published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, a scientific tome that did Harry Potter numbers at bookstores. By the time his book on women arrived in 1953, the sexual revolution was born and Kinsey was blamed for the whole damned kinky mess.

OK, that's a simplistic intro to a complex career. But it works to set up Kinsey, the scrappy, funny, hot-to-trot biopic from director-writer Bill Condon — the dynamo behind 1998's Gods and Monsters. Liam Neeson digs into his best role in years as Kinsey. The star of Schindler's List and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace has never been this loose, this ready to rock. It's a monumental performance. Even as Kinsey's id flies off the handle, Neeson stays heartfelt and human.

Laura Linney makes Neeson a dynamite match as Clara McMillen, the student who marries her professor — both are virgins on their wedding night — and finds the size of his penis too daunting until surgery licks the problem, and it's open sesame. Sex research puts a strain on marriage and parenthood, especially when Kinsey associate Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard) beds the boss and then the wife. Sarsgaard (Shattered Glass) is sensational as a sexual provocateur. Chris O'Donnell and Timothy Hutton also score as researchers, who react differently when Kinsey encourages wife-swapping. And Lynn Redgrave, as a lesbian interview subject, and William Sadler, as an all-purpose deviant, deliver astonishing cameos.

Condon has more material here than one two-hour movie can hold. But even the spillage is fun and informative. By the time Kinsey dies of a heart attack in 1956, at sixty-two, he's gone from pioneer to martyr at the hands of the FBI and the religious right. Kinsey wanted to snap the public out of sexual ignorance. And Condon's knockout of a movie tries to do the same. You'll be shocked at how far we haven't come.

From The Archives Issue 274: September 21, 1978