Last edited: January 13, 2005

A Prude Awakening

The Age, January 9, 2005

As a new biopic starring Liam Neeson shows, when sex researcher Alfred Kinsey revealed what Americans liked to do in the bedroom, the nation was stunned. Nicki Gostin reports.

It always begins with the kiss. Whenever Liam Neeson is interviewed about his latest movie, Kinsey, reporters inevitably zero in on the smooch he shares with co-star Peter Sarsgaard. A same-sex kiss, adventurous tongues and all, involving one of Hollywood’s most respected specimens of old-school male virility? Of course they’ll want to know what that was like.

Sarsgaard has tended to bat the question away with a joke, telling one magazine that “Liam pretty much tried to stuff my head down his throat”. But Neeson is just a bit tired of all the prurient interest. “I can’t say the scenes were difficult,” he says tetchily when he’s asked how he found the experience (which we’ll presume was his first piece of mano-a-mano action). “There were hard days with this film because we were shooting four or five scenes a day. It was a very limited budget. After that scene with Peter there were two others to get to as well. So there was no time to feel uncomfortable.”

Except in talking about it afterwards, that is. Still, you can hardly blame Neeson for being bored with this line of questioning. Like any self-respecting actor, he is less obsessed with the subject of himself than the subject of his movie. And in this case, there’s fair reason for that.

In Kinsey, Neeson plays the title character, Dr Alfred Kinsey, the biologist turned sex researcher who shocked, titillated, infuriated and ultimately educated a complacent America with his groundbreaking, bestselling studies about exactly who did what to whom in whose bedroom.

The film has already received rapturous reviews and earned Neeson a Golden Globe nomination for best actor. An Oscar nod will surely follow. But Kinsey is more than just top-notch award bait, as writer-director Bill Condon attests. “I was drawn to the subject because Kinsey changed the way we think about sex, and yet as a man he has mostly been forgotten,” he says.

Condon, whose last film, Gods and Monsters, won him an Oscar for best-adapted screenplay, was also struck by how intertwined the personal and the professional were for Kinsey. “There was,” he says, “an intimate connection between his personal life and his scientific project”.

And, he might have added, between the filmmaker and his subject. Condon spent more than six months doing research for Kinsey, reading multiple biographies and reams of the man’s own writings, and interviewing scores of people who knew him when he was alive.

What emerged through all of Condon’s research was a picture of a man who, on the surface at least, was as far from the typical revolutionary as you could imagine. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey 1894, Alfred Kinsey was raised by a strict father who believed that sexualising society would lead to its moral decay. After topping his high-school graduating class, Alfred went on to study engineering before switching to biology and psychology. Along the way, he also became an Eagle Scout (he was one of just 77 in the entire US). Che Guevara he most certainly wasn’t.

After graduating with honours, Kinsey landed a position as an assistant professor of zoology at Indiana University. By this time—and aged just 26—he was already on the way to becoming the world’s foremost expert on the gall wasp, eventually collecting more than a million specimens of the insect (the collection is still held by the American Museum of Natural History). Kinsey was a meticulous, painstaking researcher, and for more than a decade after his marriage to chemistry graduate Clara Bracken McMillen, he was the very picture of the conventional academic.

But then events took a strange turn. In 1938, Kinsey began teaching a marriage course at Indiana University. The course was groundbreaking in its honest presentation of sexual information, and Kinsey soon realised from the uninformed questions his participants put to him that they were woefully ignorant. Suddenly, he realised, here was a whole new field of study just waiting to be explored. He decided to treat human sexual behaviour just as he had the gall wasp—as a field to be studied methodically, exhaustively and with neither judgement nor reservation.

“He spent 20 years collecting gall wasps and he discovered that not one of these tiny insects was identical to another,” Condon explains. “He took this biological concept of individuality and applied it to human sexuality. Therefore, if each person’s sexual make-up is unique, the term ‘normal’ isn’t applicable.”

Kinsey assembled a research team (played in the movie by Sarsgaard, Chris O’Donnell and Timothy Hutton) and armed them with a list of 350 questions, covering everything from masturbation to foreplay to homosexuality. Most importantly, the researchers were instructed to be friendly, and above all to show no emotion when hearing testimony. Kinsey was determined to ensure that participants would not suffer any embarrassment and that they would feel free to be completely honest. He also encouraged his team to be sexually open themselves, and they became “swingers” long before the term was coined.

By 1947, Kinsey was director of the Institute for Sex Research, and his researchers—funded in large part by the Rockefeller Foundation—had been dispatched to all corners of the US, eventually amassing 18,000 sexual “histories”. In 1948, the results of this massive survey were published under the title Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male .

The book was an instant sensation. The first print run of 25,000 sold out in a matter of days, an extraordinary success for an academic tome. The book revealed that 92 per cent of men admitted to masturbating (the old joke would have it that the other eight per cent were lying), that 50 per cent of husbands had had extra-marital affairs and that 37 per cent of men had had at least one homosexual experience.

The book’s impact was compared to that of an atom bomb exploding. Within months it had sold more than 200,000 copies. It was translated into eight languages. Kinsey became a household name. His face graced the cover of countless magazines. Cole Porter even immortalised him in the song Too Darn Hot (with the lyrics “According to the Kinsey report/every average man you know/much prefers to play his favourite sport/when the temperature is low”).

But when Kinsey published the companion volume Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female five years later, the reception was quite different. It seemed America wasn’t ready to acknowledge that women masturbated or to read that close to half of the subjects questioned had engaged in pre-marital sex.

The denunciations were swift and harsh. The Reverend Billy Graham warned, “it is impossible to estimate the damage this book will do”. Some members of Congress ranted that Kinsey was a communist spy recruited by the Russians to undermine American values. The Rockefeller Foundation was pressured by the House Un-American Activities Committee to drop its financial support, and finally acceded in 1954. At the same time, jealousies prompted by the research team’s partner swapping were threatening to tear the Institute apart. By the time he died of a heart attack at age 62 in 1956, Kinsey was was very much a man on the outer.

If the subject of Kinsey’s life and work was crying out to be made into a film, the man himself was no conventional hero. “He was a very complex man,” says Condon, who also describes him as “a nerd, a social misfit”. “I thought it was important to present him warts and all and let people form their own opinions.”

“The film doesn’t make him into a saint,” Neeson adds. Indeed, scenes like the one in which Kinsey circumcises himself using only a penknife suggest “madman” might be a more appropriate label. However, Neeson continues, “Kinsey was a pioneer, who saw a gap in our human knowledge. He brought a lot of stuff out of the closet and gave us access to the aspects of sexual behaviour that we were too scared or embarrassed to talk about. He smashed taboos and dispelled a certain amount of ignorance and fear and guilt”.

Condon says he wanted Neeson for the role because, “I made a list of actors who could play the part and the list was not very long. It ended up being Liam and Tony Danza”. More seriously, he says he wanted Neeson because he possesses “a power essential to Kinsey”.

Certainly, Neeson is an imposing figure. The 52-year-old Irishman stands 193 centimetres tall and is a former boxer who still works out despite giving up fighting years ago (“I just did not like punching people and spectators didn’t like that,” he says. “I liked back-pedalling and I had a good jab, but I was never a mixer”).

In order to play Kinsey, Neeson had to undergo quite a transformation. To achieve his potbelly physique, the actor had to quit the gym for several months. To age from 20 to 60 over the course of the film, he had help from Michael Laudati, a special-effects make-up artist. The resemblance is uncanny, right down to the porcupine coiffure, or “hair that stands up like a wheat field” as Neeson describes it. The final touch was the trademark bow tie.

Though such transformations are the stuff of which Oscar-night dreams are made, many actors would baulk to being asked to hide their greatest selling point—their physical appeal. But Neeson is no prima donna. “As long as I have the right sushi chef and helicopter pad, I’m happy,” he jokes.

Neeson is married to Natasha Richardson (daughter of Vanessa Redgrave, sister of Nip/Tuck star Joely Richardson) and is the father of Michael, 10 and Daniel, nine. Clearly, the boys are his priority. He had the production of Kinsey moved from Toronto to New York so he could spend as much time with them as possible. One of the days of press interviews for the film fell on Halloween, so he knocked off at 4.30pm sharp so he could get home in time to take the boys trick-or-treating.

For all that he tries to maintain an “ordinary” life in New York, Neeson knows it’s a long way from his own childhood as a Catholic in the Northern Ireland of the 1950s and ‘60s. There was certainly no equivalent to Kinsey’s trailblazing going on there. “I learned about the birds and the bees from toilet walls with my schoolmates,” he says.

But we shouldn’t be too quick to congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come, he says. “You think things have changed, but in a way they haven’t. Western society goes through cycles, and I think right now we’re in very conservative times. They want to tighten it and tighten it and tighten it. Bring us back, in a way, to the 1950s.”

Neeson views this neo-traditionalism darkly. “When you have ignorance and fear you can intimidate people and keep them in their place,” he says.

Indeed, it sometimes seems that the only swinging happening in the US right now is towards just the sort of old-style sexual conservatism Kinsey seemed to have put an end to 57 years ago. In the recent US elections, one-fifth of all voters claimed that “moral values” was the most important issue confronting the nation.

Despite the ongoing backlash and some concerns over his methodology (critics say prisoners and college-educated women were over-represented in his population sample, and some have claimed—wrongly, according John Bancroft, director of the Kinsey Institute—that he was involved in illegal sexual research on children), Kinsey’s main conclusions have never been disproved. Indeed, the institute that he founded still carries out research. Right now, a man called Erick Janssen is documenting the effect of mood on sexual behaviour, and hoping that the results will help treat mood-related sexual dysfunction.

When the first Kinsey report was released, his wife Clara told McCall’s magazine that her husband’s work represented, “an unvoiced plea for tolerance”. As the film is released, Neeson echoes her in claiming that “If Kinsey stood for one thing, it was a respect for individuals”.

Nearly six decades on, it would be nice to think we can take that respect for granted now. Sadly, and as all the questions lobbed at Neeson over one measly screen kiss can’t help but make us realise, we still have a long way to go.

Kinsey opens on Thursday

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