EASILY THE MOST IMPORTANT biopic of last year was Kinsey, which was written and directed by Bill Condon. By turns serious, poignant, and hilarious, the movie did full justice to the man who was the first to rip the sheets off of American sexual behavior by examining it scientifically and then sharing his findings with the public. To this end, Alfred Kinsey (1894–1956) and his small group of assistants interviewed thousands of men and women across the U.S. about their sex lives. Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, published in 1948, snapped the still dominant Victorian stranglehold on sexual mores and behavior. The book was an immediate sensation—a runaway bestseller (for all its scientific language) and the stuff of countless newspaper and magazine articles about the man and his work. This exposé of men’s sexual behavior in all its diversity, including acts deemed “perverted” by contemporary standards, garnered considerable indignation in some quarters. But this was nothing compared to the reception Kinsey received five years later when he dared to tread into the more fortified realm of female sexuality in his follow-up study, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female.
In chronicling the scientist’s journey from obscure biologist to household name, Condon found a unifying theme in Kinsey’s development of a method for studying sexual behavior worthy of the name science. The film was four years in the making and brought together a topnotch cast and crew, including Liam Neeson in the title role. Its release in late 2004 seemed fortuitous: the plot of Kinsey involves the conflict between the scientist and “the forces of chastity” (as Kinsey called them) that were gathering against him by the early 1950’s. More than fifty years later it seemed a similar contest was again (still?) being waged between liberation and repression in American sexual mores.
Born in New York in 1955, Condon attended Regis High School and Columbia University, where he graduated with a degree in philosophy. He began his career as a film journalist. An analytical piece in Millimeter magazine brought him to the attention of director Michael Laughlin, who hired him as a writer for two off-beat thrillers in the early 1980’s. Condon made his directorial debut in 1987 with a Southern gothic film called Sister, Sister, and spent the next few years making movies for cable TV. His breakthrough film was 1998’s Gods and Monsters, which Condon adapted from Christopher Bram’s novel about the final days of Frankenstein director James Whale (played by Ian McKellen), who was a gay man. More recently, he wrote the screenplay for the box-office hit Chicago.
I interviewed Bill Condon by phone last April just before the DVD release of Kinsey. Highly recommended, the DVD includes many bonus features, including an informative documentary about the making of the movie, The Kinsey Report: Sex on Film.
Gay & Lesbian Review: To borrow the first question asked in the documentary about Kinsey, when did you first become aware of sex?
Bill Condon: That’s a tough question because I grew up Irish-Catholic, so it was well hidden for a very long time. Honestly, I found these pamphlets for the “rhythm method” in my parent’s room and then I asked my older sisters. They told me something scary that I don’t remember.
G&LR: Why do you think so many Americans are still afraid of sex?
BC: If we could figure that out, we could deal with it. Maybe it’s just in the DNA. In the film, Kinsey says, “What if all the rogues and libertines had crossed the Atlantic Ocean with the Puritans?” It does seem to be built into us somehow; a lot of people have different theories. Gore Vidal makes the point that it’s to change the subject, to keep people’s minds off bigger issues—get them focused on something that doesn’t really matter.
G&LR: Before the film’s producer Gail Mutrux approached you about telling Kinsey’s story, what did Kinsey’s work mean to you?
BC: He meant a lyric in a Cole Porter song. I didn’t want the film to be about this, but he is one of the founder’s of the gay movement. There was a direct line between the publication of his book on male sexuality in 1948 and the real beginnings of the consciousness-raising movement. So, I do feel, being gay, a more open life partly because of him.
G&LR: What kind of effect do you think he has had on those whose sexual orientations do not fit the “norm”?
BC: Tremendous. You know, he was once described as “the patron saint of the sexually despised.” But he did make the essential point that everybody is different, and people needed to acknowledge the differences and not force everyone into one model. Underneath all the writing is a great plea for tolerance of sexual diversity. And once people found out how much illicit sexuality was happening, America couldn’t ignore it. It’s easy when nobody knows and everyone says, “Well those things are just going on with perverts in dark alleys.” But when that turns out not to be true, people have to look at it.
G&LR: What do you think of Kinsey’s notion that if society would leave sexuality alone, it would be more varied and polymorphous?
BC: I think it’s true and I think it’s true anyway. Even with society’s constraints it just goes underground. In the last quarter of the last century, there was no question that the 1970’s were really leading into an interesting direction. I was living in New York City and there were all those straight sex clubs, and polymorphous sexuality was on the horizon. Then AIDS arrived.
G&LR: What do you think Kinsey would say about the bracketing of gays and non-gays?
BC: He would be totally offended by that. You know, the person who sort of toed the line most strongly is Gore Vidal. He said, “Calling someone ‘homosexual’ was as meaningful as calling them well-coiffed.” It’s describing a quality and nothing more. Kinsey was a proponent of individuality as the key to sexual freedom. I think the idea of people defining themselves by certain sexual acts he would have thought was really wrongheaded.
G&LR: Kinsey was moved by the profound ignorance of people. Does that affect your work in any way?
BC: When I was a teenager, there was a movie, [John Schlesinger’s] Sunday, Bloody Sunday, which was kind of the first depiction in a mainstream movie of two homosexual characters—one was bisexual. It had a kiss between Peter Finch and Murray Head. It was kind of cute, kind of “rock star,” at the time. I remember it was sort of shocking, but people wrote about it, and it was exciting, too. But you cut to almost 35 years later, it was shocking to be at a theater in Century City [Los Angeles] or, more shocking, at a Writer’s Guild screening, and have people visibly bristle and some gasp when Peter Sarsgaard and Liam Neeson kissed. I have to say, that kind of thing really shocked me. I thought we had come way beyond that.
G&LR: Perhaps we still have our own misconceptions about sexuality in the more tolerant big cities.
BC: I think so. I actually came upon my own biases [while making the movie]. We walk around with them, probably unaware, and just congratulate ourselves on being more progressive than we might be.
G&LR: Your documentary about the making of Kinsey highlights how the film became a reflection of the 2004 presidential election with regard to sexuality and morals. [It was released a week after the vote.] Do you think the film would have been as successful if it had been released a year or two ago?
BC: That’s a really good question. I don’t know. The election heated it up so it might not have gotten as much attention.
G&LR: Kinsey believed that sex was a life-or-death issue. How relevant is that sentiment today?
BC: It’s an essential part of the human condition. You know, in the movie, when Lynn Redgrave [playing a lesbian character]says, “You saved my life, Sir,” that was something I really did come across. Take the fact that out of the $5 billion earmarked for dealing with AIDS in Africa, $800 million is put aside for abstinence education, which is pointless. It won’t work, and Kinsey has proven it won’t work. And people die in the meantime. There’s a condom study at the Kinsey Institute about the way condom use isn’t as effective as it has been and that’s because they’re discovering that a small but significant percentage of people don’t know how to use them. They put them on after they have had sex or leave them on for twenty minutes [after ejaculation]. It’s unbelievable. They’re also doing another study on males during high stress periods and how some of them get involved in highly dangerous behavior, and that’s stuff you see in the gay community now.
G&LR: In many ways Kinsey seemed to be a product of his times—namely, the end of Modernism, in that he was approaching knowledge and collecting data through a Cartesian viewpoint and yet came to what you could simplify and say were “anti-Cartesian” conclusions. He wanted to figure sexuality out, but his conclusions were infinite. Do you think Kinsey was conscious that declaring anything “the truth” was, to put it in Nietzsche’s words, an “arrogant and mendacious minute of world history?”
BC: Yes, you are so right. It’s really a moment in American history. It crossed all kinds of disciplines—that we could somehow just sit down and measure everything. It’s one of my favorite lines in the movie where he says, “In 20 years we’ll have answered all the basic questions.” That was the thought. America having sort of helped the good guys win the war, it was like “we’re going to end all of the problems now.” There is something amusing about it. I think it’s what made him an interesting scientist to make a movie about. That he had that element, that sort of confidence, arrogance maybe, of his time. To our eyes, it’s sort of funny now. The “end of history” was announced a few years ago, too.
G&LR: Reminiscent of Martin Luther and the Reformation and in light of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, it could be asserted that Kinsey’s greatest transgression was not that he collected this data for science and wrote about things scientists and psychoanalysts had long discovered and were discussing amongst themselves, but that he actually put that knowledge out there for the public to consume and be empowered by.
BC: That’s really true. I thought for once a movie company got a tagline right, “Let’s talk about sex.” Yes, because you got that conversation going and the way he democratized it. Yes, you’re absolutely right.
G&LR: Relatively speaking, Kinsey wrote about his findings rather simply—not meant in a pejorative sense—in order to be read by a wider audience.
BC: I don’t think those books are written for absolute mass consumption. He made very little money writing them. He wanted to make them accessible, but I don’t think he was writing just for a big public. It was very important for him to have people view them as works of science.
G&LR: What I have in mind here is that in the next decade, the 1960’s, the structuralists saw the co-opting of Sigmund Freud’s writings and, in response, rebelled with very obtuse, difficult-to-understand prose. What measures did you take to make this film “complete” yet able to pique viewers to learn more about the subject?
BC: That’s a good connection. I think that once you’re making a movie, even if it’s an independent movie, you want it to be truthful. I was more interested in getting the story across. Movies of this size can never be geared to an academic work, even a documentary. You’re already in the land of communication, not on a mass level necessarily, but certainly trying to be as accessible as possible.
G&LR: As a filmmaker did you feel emboldened by Kinsey’s courage?
BC: Definitely. Courage for him was matched by a sort of real excitement about shocking people. I liked designing the whole first part of the movie as a Merchant-Ivory movie where you don’t expect to see Emma Thompson’s genitals. I like that when that slide of the penis and vagina come on I can get a rise out of a contemporary audience who are pretty used to that imagery.
G&LR: How do you feel that people are now treating you like an expert on Kinsey—this interview included?
BC: I don’t know about being an expert, but my subject was Kinsey and his subject was sex. I am certainly no expert on sex except from what I know through him.
John Esther, a frequent contributor to this journal, is a cultural writer based in Los Angeles.