No Sex in the Heartland? Bush, Dick: Watch Kinsey

Bill Condon’s Kinsey , from his own screenplay, examines the life of the man whose book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (published on Jan. 5, 1948, by the prestigious W.B. Saunders) was credited-or blamed-for the subsequent sexual revolution of the 1960’s. The film arrives at a time when much of the nation has repudiated Alfred Kinsey’s implied sympathy and tolerance for so-called deviant sexual behavior. Aside from the eternal Puritanism that lurks in the American landscape, waiting like a wild beast to pounce on any perceived outrage-a bared female breast shown at the sacred Super Bowl half-time ceremony, a Massachusetts judicial decision legitimizing same-sex marriages-there is also the skepticism in the liberal-arts community about Kinsey’s proposition that human sexuality could be quantified and measured by scientific methods.

This skepticism takes the form of a question in Mr. Condon’s admirably adventurous biopic. A staff member asks Kinsey whether the feelings of love aroused by much of human sexual behavior can be measured with precise scientific accuracy, as if the physical and emotional dimensions of sex were based on the same mechanistic principles. Kinsey never really answered that question to his own or anyone else’s satisfaction, but, curiously, the downward spiral of his career was accelerated by the publication in September 1953 of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female , which the male establishment considered especially outrageous for even mentioning the scandalous proclivities of its mothers, wives and daughters-the three pillars of the pre-feminist model of womanhood.

At about the same time, Kinsey ran afoul of McCarthyism, sweeping the country in the form of official investigations of un-American activities. Under the pressure of these Congressional inquisitors, the Rockefeller Foundation withdrew its funding for Kinsey’s research after a 12-year association. Kinsey died of heart failure two years later, on Aug. 25, 1956, at the age of 62. However, the film doesn’t close with Kinsey’s death as something of a martyr to the cause of enlightenment, but rather with a lyrical scene of Kinsey and his wife in the woods they both loved, along with the birds and animals that he had studied so assiduously as a young zoologist.

Alfred Charles Kinsey was born in Hoboken, N.J., on June 23, 1894. He was the valedictorian of his class of 1912 at Columbia High School and began engineering studies at the Stevens Institute-a career choice that his repressive father, a minister, thoroughly approved. After feeling like an invalid throughout much of his childhood, Kinsey found physical and spiritual liberation in the outdoors and, in 1913, was one of only 77 Eagle Scouts in the country. Mr. Condon devotes one scene to a disturbingly ambiguous encounter between the young Kinsey and his scoutmaster. Nothing overt occurs, but we have already been conditioned to look at all such scenes with well-founded suspicions of improper behavior.

After Kinsey left the Stevens Institute to study biology and psychology at Bowdoin College, his father disowned him, and the rest of the way he was on his own, graduating magna cum laude in 1916 and making his first field trip to collect gall wasps (American Cynipidae ) in 1917. In 1919, he was awarded a Sc.D. in taxonomy from Harvard University and then joined the faculty of Indiana University in August 1920. He married one of his students, Clara Bracken McMillen, in Brookville, Ind., on June 3, 1921. She was 23, he was 26, and both were apparently repressed virgins on their wedding night, with painful and even disastrous consequences.

It is at about this point in the film that we realize we’re watching a studied and detailed period piece about people who walked the earth some 50 to 80 years ago. Liam Neeson’s Kinsey is a curiously fabricated impersonation of the eccentric, with bolt-upright hair accentuating his slightly stooped walk and a strikingly deliberative reading of his lines (as if any of us had even the slightest idea what the real-life Kinsey actually looked and sounded like). Perhaps Mr. Neeson’s Kinsey is as uncanny a performance as Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles; perhaps not. All we know for certain is that Mr. Neeson and Mr. Condon have created the portrait of a pedant: hyper-academic and hyper-scientific in the extreme, with a stubborn and domineering streak developed, ironically, out of Kinsey’s resentment of the tyrannical nature of his father (played with a perpetual sneer by John Lithgow).

As the wife, Laura Linney’s Clara McMillen Kinsey is given more latitude to display a wider range of emotional reactions. She is frequently exasperated by her husband’s pseudo-scientific rationalizations for his outrageous and unfeeling behavior. There are sequences in which Mr. Neeson’s “Proc” and Ms. Linney’s “Mac” gradually extend the parameters of their marriage to include relationships with staff members and their wives, creating a kind of swinging commune before its time and embracing adultery, bisexuality and “tripling” (a term coined by Tom Wolfe in his hilarious “The Me Decade”), though Mr. Condon doesn’t illustrate the latter diversion.

There is even a tinge of homoeroticism in the very casting of Kinsey’s interchangeably good-looking assistants: Clyde Martin (Peter Sarsgaard), Paul Gebhard (Timothy Hutton) and Wardell Pomeroy (Chris O’Donnell). One wonders what true believers in the red states will make of this free and easy attitude toward sex, founded on the campus of Indiana University’s Institute for Sex Research in April 1947. Or of the packed lecture hall in which Kinsey taught the school’s first marriage course, with a special emphasis on the best means to achieve orgasms for both men and women. Of course, true believers are unlikely to get past even the title of the film, since Kinsey’s name has become synonymous with the dirty-minded study of sex. And if any of those true believers did get past that tabooed title, they would hardly be appeased by the broad caricature of Professor Thurman Rice (Tim Curry), who taught a competing course that preached the virtues of abstinence for young men and women prior to marriage. Mr. Curry himself has come a long way from his midnight-movie glory days in Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), which hardly endorsed abstinence in any form.

A penultimate scene shows a sick and discouraged Kinsey partially vindicated after conducting an interview with a once-married middle-aged woman who has a secret crush on another woman. Haunted by grief, depression and guilt, the woman was on the verge of suicide when Kinsey’s books came out. Upon reading them, she discovered that there were many people like her, giving her the courage to confess her feelings to the other woman, who then reciprocated with the confession of a secret longing that she too had been afraid to disclose. Mr. Condon pulls out all the visual stops for this sequence (the woman is played with intensity and bravura by Lynn Redgrave in unprecedented close-up), concluding with her grateful grasp of Kinsey’s hands for saving her life.

Many of the film’s more interesting scenes have to do with the design and execution of the interviews themselves rather than the data that was gleaned from them. Suddenly Kinsey made it possible to ask anyone and everyone what had hitherto been one’s most intimate (and often guiltiest) secrets. Men and women, young and old, rich and poor, hetero and homo, pretty and ugly-all were accorded the same dignity and respect. An early scene shows Kinsey and an assistant invading a gay bar for research material. But the simple display of faces across a map of the entire United States reminds us how few of these faces could ever have had their stories told on-screen. Even so, it’s depressing to realize, over 50 years later, how many people still refuse to accept the dictum of Terence-and Kinsey-that “nothing human is alien to me.”

Game Night

Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights , from a screenplay by David Aaron Cohen and Mr. Berg, based on the book by H.G. Bissinger, has been hanging around as a prime word-of-mouth sleeper, which is to say that it’s gotten good buzz from moviegoers who are hardly football fanatics. An opening title tells us that the events in the film actually transpired in real life. Usually I bristle at such assurances, because too often in movies, truth is stranger than fiction. For once, however, this certification of reality is helpful to moviegoers, in that any suspension of disbelief becomes a less burdensome process for this curiously intense treatment of Friday-night high-school football as the established religion of the small West Texas town of Odessa.

There’s not much to the plot: The Permian High Panthers are embarked on a state championship season, which the town of Odessa has come to expect as its due thanks to several recent championship wins. Caught in this web of local entitlement and expectations is Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), who is more intelligently levelheaded than the rah-rah theatrics he uses to rouse his young athletes would suggest, as well as the soft-soap guarantees he dishes out to the local boosters. In a word, nuance typifies both Mr. Thornton’s highly calibrated performance and the film’s absence of unnecessary underlining.

When the team’s star running back, Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), is kept in for one play too many during a blowout victory and is subsequently lost to the team for the rest of the year with a career-ending knee injury, Coach Gaines quickly finds his team threatened with not even making it to the playoffs, much less winning the hungrily coveted state championship. After an early-season defeat, Gaines and his wife Sharon (Connie Britton) come home to find dozens of “for sale” signs scattered all over their front lawn by the unforgiving fans. Gaines is abused on talk radio as if he were leading the New York Yankees or the Kerry campaign, and there’s no end to the second-guessing, most ominously by the local powers-that-be, over the coach’s prospects of being rehired next season should Permian lose the state championship.

Sharon suggests (only half in jest) that they should move to Alaska, where football is perhaps not taken as seriously. What is most original and unusual about the film, however, is the high emotional temperature of the players themselves, two or three of whom are shown as potential head cases because of the high expectations they face at home. Lucas Black’s Mike Winchell, the team’s shy, withdrawn quarterback, is hoping against hope that football will give him the chance to get away from Odessa and his domineering mother. Boobie Miles, whose college-football dreams have been shattered along with his knee, illustrates the often short professional life of football players and their constant physical vulnerability to the sheer violence of the “game.” But there are no sermons on the subject, no morals to be drawn. This is life today in football country, and all do the best they can.

Brotherly Love

Rodney Evans’ Brother to Brother , from his own screenplay, can be criticized for the auteur’s reach exceeding his grasp-but what an impressive reach it is, stretching from modern-day New York to the Harlem of the 1920’s. Studying at Columbia University, Perry (Anthony Mackie) is artistic, African-American and gay. In between classes, he works at a homeless shelter, where he meets elderly Richard Bruce Nugent (Roger Robinson), one of the participants in the Harlem Renaissance of the 20’s along with Langston Hughes (Daniel Sunjata), Zora Neale Hurston (Anjanue Ellis) and the ill-fated Wallace Thurman (Ray Ford). The charismatic Perry attracts both white and black lovers, but he is in a state of perpetual malaise because of the sexist bigotry of his own people-including his father and mother, who have driven him from the house and disowned him.

Recalling Nugent’s memories of the riotous gay segment of the Harlem Renaissance, Mr. Evans switches from color film to black and white as he retraces black-on-black bigotry over sexual identity. At one point, Perry is beaten by a gang of homophobic young black men; and though Nugent and Hurston are shown, back in the 20’s, refusing overtures from white publishers for more sex and violence in their “nigger” sagas, the main cause of Perry’s malaise remains intra-African-American-particularly from homophobic spokesmen for the civil-rights movement. The many scenes of serious discourse on this subject clash with the comparatively frivolous scenes of gay love-making. It’s a problem in narrative fluidity that bedevils both gay and straight filmmakers, and it’s even harder to solve given Mr. Evans’ evident lack of technical and economic resources. But his overall effort is an eminently worthy one.