Interview with director/screenwriter Bill Condon by Jan Lisa Huttner,
November 19, 2004
‘Kinsey’, Bill Condon’s new biopic about 1940s sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, raises questions about morality in our own time as well. Jan Lisa Huttner talked to the director in October at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival.
JLH: ‘Kinsey’ arrives in a highly politicized climate, as I’m sure you realize. Are you making a deliberate political statement with this film?
Bill Condon: While that wasn’t first and foremost in my mind, you can’t get into this without being struck, on one side, by how far we’ve come, and then the other side, by how little things have changed. Kinsey was trying to study sex scientifically, get rid of the overlay of culture and religion.
But the imposition of morality onto science, — where it does not belong — has become rampant in recent years. Stem cell research is a perfect example. And worse yet is the money being spent on “abstinence programs,” while money is deliberately withheld from sex education programs. $5 billion has been earmarked for AIDS in Africa, and of that, $800 million is for “abstinence education.” What a mad idea that is in the middle of that crisis.
JLH: People hide behind “moral values”…
Bill Condon: And refuse to talk about sex pragmatically. Problems emerge and some people try to sweep them under the rug. Look at the historical moment in which Kinsey began his research. There was a VD epidemic in the late 30s, so there was a real push on campuses, mostly by young people, to have sex education classes. That led to arguments between those who wanted more information and those who only supported abstinence.
In the film, I present that debate as an interchange between Kinsey [Liam Neeson] and Thurman Rice [Tim Curry], who was the head of Indiana University’s medical school. “There is a cure for VD and it’s called abstinence,” says Rice. We’re still having that same basic conversation now. It’s frustrating. I knew when I took this on that there were groups who demonized Kinsey, and they play dirty.
JLH: I took a look at the “Concerned Women for America” website.
Bill Condon: It’s amazing, isn’t it? They throw around charges that are made up out of whole cloth. They make huge leaps: Kinsey talked to a pedophile therefore he was complicit with the pedophile. Kinsey encouraged or in some way sponsored pedophilia? Crazy! Wrong!
JLH: You’re quite explicit about that in the scene where Kinsey meets with Kenneth Braun [William Sadler].
Bill Condon: Kinsey met with Braun and Braun was a pedophile. That did happen. But people like “Concerned Women for America” take a fact like that, in which there’s no gray area, and then they use it as this cudgel to destroy Kinsey’s reputation as well as the science that he produced.
It’s a tension that exists in our culture because of our Puritan roots, I guess. This pendulum swings back and forth and back and forth. When people see SEX AND THE CITY, they think the discussion of sexuality is so rampant, but it isn’t. In popular culture, maybe, there’s more emphasis on sex, but in the halls of power, the other side is in the ascendancy. There’s a whole other movement that’s very, very strong and really has more control.
JLH: In the film you make it very clear that, while he made a detailed study of sex, Kinsey never tried to explain “love.”
Bill Condon: Our relationships, relationships between adults, how all those pieces fit together — that’s the most complicated thing we all face. And just refusing to talk about the sexual part of it doesn’t help.
My father is Irish Catholic. He’s very kind, not like Kinsey’s father, but there was still an absolute terror of discussing anything having to do with sex. That’s the background I grew up in, and I think that was the emotional connection I immediately made to Kinsey, [understanding] just how difficult that discussion can be. I don’t think it has changed that drastically for people.
JLH: One problematic example is the passion students often develop for charismatic teachers. Is that part of what you wanted to explore through Kinsey’s relationship with Clyde Martin [Peter Sarsgaard]?
Bill Condon: When I introduce Kinsey’s wife Clara [Laura Linney] in the movie, first she’s an adoring student looking up at this teacher, Kinsey. When I introduce Clyde Martin, he has the same shots that she does. You can see that Clyde has a crush on his teacher. But Kinsey was so backward socially that he could only relate to people on that level — he was a pedant. People said that his favorite form of social exchange was the mini-lecture.
JLH: Is that another way of saying Kinsey’s own “grand passion” was for science and scientific inquiry?
Bill Condon: A scientist is an unlikely character to put at the center of a movie. Kinsey had a very clinical nature. Liam brings an awful lot to it. He lets you see underneath it, to Kinsey’s incredible empathy and compassion. But it’s tricky because the audience can lose patience with somebody like that.
All the big things in Kinsey’s life — all the big controversial things — are in the film. But there are things that I left out, things that probably would have been in a bigger studio movie. For example, the Kinseys lost their first child, and that was a great tragedy that they carried with them the rest of their lives. Including that would have softened his personality for the audience, but it didn’t have anything to do with the themes of my film. You make thousands of choices in telescoping an entire life into two hours.
© Jan Lisa Huttner (11/15/04) – special for Really Good Films, reposted with permission.