Kinsey (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Scoop's thoughts in white

I suppose you sorta understand who Alfred Kinsey was. He was a scientist who began his career in entomology, having eventually collected one million gall wasps over a period of two decades. Somewhere around the age of 40, he more or less accidentally ended up teaching a course in human sexuality, and found that it was difficult thing to do because nobody seemed to know anything about human sexuality.

The first question that people usually ask a supposed expert in sex is "am I normal?" Before Dr. Kinsey's time, and when he began to teach his course, nobody knew the answer. There were no systematic studies of masturbation, sexual positions, gender preference, genital size, female orgasms, or much of anything else relating to human sexuality. If you masturbated twice a day and were wondering whether you were truly odd, nobody could tell you how many people masturbated more than you, or if you were doing something harmful. If you had your first sexual encounter at 13, nobody could tell you whether that was earlier than most folks. If you had a homosexual encounter, there was no evidence to tell you how many people shared your experience.

Lacking facts with any scientific validity, Dr. Kinsey's course was filled with uncertainties, and he resolved to end that by finding out the answers to the key questions by studying human beings in the same dispassionate way he had studied gall wasps - by collecting massive amounts of data from hundreds of thousands of subjects and then assembling statistical analyses of the data. He eventually published two famous, earth-shattering studies called "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" and "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female".

Unlike Kinsey's brilliant entomological work, which was known only to specialists in the scientific community, the male sex study made him "cover of Time famous." His face was as well known to the general public as was possible in that era before TV, and the 1948 volume made Dr. Kinsey a mainstream scientific star, much as Carl Sagan was in a later era. "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" was not only the best-selling scientific book ever written up to that point but, at a sales level of nearly 300,000 copies, it even made the regular best seller lists, side by side with the potboilers! The book's publication also caused Dr. Kinsey to be reviled in certain circles, especially among those who argued that his objectivity was tantamount to an absence of morality. Maybe it was. There is no question that Dr. Kinsey began the process of loosing the hold which religious fundamentalists had on the law. It was very difficult to argue for the illegality of practices which Professor Kinsey showed to be prevalent, or even universal. 37% of men had at least one homosexual experience. Most people practiced oral sex. Just about all men loved nudie pictures. Yet most of these United States had laws against one or more of those things. In essence, given the then-existing laws and Kinsey's findings, just about every man was a criminal. As Dr. Kinsey himself put it, "Everybody's crime is no crime at all."

The religious fundamentalists had to give up their hold on the law, albeit reluctantly. They did not have to give up their hold on sin, however, and that is where they came into the most direct conflict with Professor Kinsey. The "Human Male" volume showed that virtually every man masturbated. Given that fact, how could the churches continue to preach that it was a sin? Well, they could, and did, in spite of the professor's admonition that "Everybody's sin is nobody's sin." Kinsey understood many things, but sin was not one of them. Theologians felt that a universal behavior could still be sinful, because mankind's greatest achievement was to reach purity by rising above shameful and base animal instincts.

Kinsey's male volume outraged the fundies, but made him a secular saint. The 1953 female volume, on the other hand, transformed him into a monster in the eyes of everyone but the objective scientific community. Men had been willing to recognize their own peccadilloes, but were not yet ready to face the fact that their daughters and mothers and wives were masturbating and fantasizing behind their backs. Even today, after a half century of progress, men still patronize and condescend to women, so you can imagine the attitudes which the professor's book encountered in those days. In Dr. Kinsey's time, women were still posing demurely and purely on men's pedestals, and Kinsey seemed to be toppling them from those positions. Some of his data correlations represented time bombs to the guardians of morality. For example, Kinsey reported that married women had more orgasms if they had premarital sexual experience, and that lesbians were better than males at inducing their partners' climaxes. The potential implications of those facts were staggering in light of 1953's moral standards.

Of course, Kinsey was simply reporting the facts, stating what was already happening was and not opining what ought to be, but many felt that he was a menace to society. His female sexuality book came out in 1953, at the height of the anti-communist hysteria, and some congressmen preached that Kinsey was a secret pinko infiltrator working to erode America's morals and thus weaken her resolve to resist communism! Looking back on it from today's perspective, the charges seem absurd to just about anyone, and in fact such accusations were obviously ludicrous to rational people even then, but the accusations alone were sufficient to terminate many of the Kinsey Institute's grants.

So what about the movie?

Oh, yeah.

Well, there are a bunch of ways to look at biopics. They may have several purposes, and probably should succeed on more than one level.

Biopics should be educational.

This film succeeds well in that department. Before watching this film, I knew only that Kinsey was a famous sex researcher. I didn't know anything about the work he did, its importance, or the context of how it was accepted.  I didn't know anything about what kind of man he was or how he got into this kind of work. After viewing the film, I feel like I have a very thorough understanding of all of those matters, so chalk up a great big "A" on the report card for "education".

Biopics should be cinematic on their own.

Ah, here's kind of a problem for this film. A truly great biopic has to be a pic first and bio second. Amadeus and Immortal Beloved are good movies because they are good stories. If Mozart and Beethoven were proven not to exist, or if the facts in the movies were proven incorrect, it would not really matter. Those would still be terrific movies.

Kinsey has no cinematic hook to make it work like those two movies, except for some good humor. It is pretty much just a straightforward chronological biography. Like any such life-encompassing movie, it tries to cover too much, and ends up introducing elements without developing them. (Kinsey's relationship with his brother is introduced, then dropped. Kinsey's relationship with his son is introduced, then dropped. )

Biopics should try to paint the whole picture.

The movie pulled away from the Full Monty. It is no longer controversial that Professor Kinsey showed the high incidence of male homosexual encounters, nor is that frequency still a secret. It is now well known that all males masturbate, and that increased frequency does not lead to a loss of sexual potency later in life, nor infertility, nor insanity, nor hairy palms. Kinsey's work is responsible for forcing society to confront and change its attitudes toward these things. But Kinsey's work also introduced many concepts that were controversial then and are still controversial now, and the film simply backed off from those.

For example, Kinsey suggested that sex between adults and children was much more common than had ever been thought, and that the children in those relationships did not differ significantly from other people when they became adults. Obviously, that finding did not influence society's attitude toward pedophiles. The film might have become really brilliant if it had examined why Kinsey's findings caused people to change their attitudes toward some things, but not toward others. Obviously there is some point at which almost every individual draws a line and says "I don't care what the facts say, I choose to believe something else." Do you see why this is troublesome for everyone, whether liberal or conservative?

  • For the liberals and freethinkers who applaud Dr. Kinsey and the impact he had on society, the childhood data means that they, too, are willing to draw a line where the facts are not relevant if they conflict with deeply-held beliefs. If that is true, they must admit that it is OK for a line to be drawn, and the debate simply centers on where to draw the line, not whether it should be drawn. Liberals do not want to make that concession.

  • For the religious conservatives, it means that the scientific facts could lead to even further intrusions into their guardianship of morality.

In fact, society's collective concept of morality is merely a matter of determining where to draw the line, primarily by evaluating where most individuals draw the line. If we had absolute proof tomorrow that children who have sex with their parents grow up to be happier and more productive adults than those who do not, and that a very high percentage of adults do have sex with their children or stepchildren, we would still not move the line of acceptability to include intergenerational incest. As a society, we would still believe such behavior to be "wrong", even if it were  widespread and beneficial. That is deeply ingrained in us. I like to think I'm an objective thinker, but I concede that I could never accept moving that line to a point before puberty.

Yet if Dr Kinsey were to see the same evidence, he would probably have argued that such a finding should cause that line to be moved. (And in fact many have suggested that Kinsey himself was guilty of participating in and facilitating pedophilia, although I don't really know how the evidence shakes out on those claims.)  Remember what I said earlier - "Obviously there is some point at which almost every individual draws a line and ... " Note the word "almost". Dr Kinsey was the very reason why that word was in that sentence. The intransigence of his character and his stubborn unwillingness to compromise scientific objectivity with a society's collective sense of morality would have been highlighted by making the film include Professor Kinsey's most controversial findings, not just the safest ones which have already been incorporated into our consciousness.

This would have made Kinsey a better film because it would have allowed the viewer in 2004 to walk in the same shoes that the general public wore in 1953, thus to understand why the professor was so hated back then, and to confront Kinsey as people in the 50s confronted him. The film as it exists now allows us the comfort of smiling patronizingly at the people in those days who were too foolish to see the obvious.

At its heart, this film is as safe and unchallenging as any of the biopics produced by mainstream Hollywood in the studio days. Oh, sure, it portrays the professor as an obsessive science nerd who was a virgin at 26, had a bad haircut, wore a silly bowtie, and did not believe in love; but it also makes him a prophetic, even messianic figure who was stoned by hypocrites simply because of his selfless quest for truth. His enemies are portrayed as one-dimensional tyrants (John Lithgow as his father) and oily humbugs (Tim Curry as a rival professor at Indiana). There's a lot of manipulation there, and little truth-seeking.

Because the film chose the safe path, it has been overrated by the critics. You should expect that because it is a film which told the critics everything they wanted to hear, confirmed their own sense of superiority to the unwashed masses, and hid from their view any findings that would have made them uneasy and would therefore have lumped them, the enlightened liberal intellectual critics of 2004, with the ignoramuses of 1953.

At any rate, I suppose I have strayed too far into what the film should have been and have gotten off the path of describing what it actually is. Go back up to my earlier point. Biopics are sort of like basketball players in that they have many ways to score and don't have to master every single way. A biopic may score on education, on entertainment, or on provocation. Basketball players may score on lay-ups, long jumpers, or acrobatic aerial maneuvers. It is not necessary for a basketball player to do all three in order to be good, because if he can do all three, he is Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan, and is not merely good, but of unearthly brilliance. Kinsey is not of unearthly brilliance. The film cannot do it all. It is not innovative in either style or content. It is not provocative except to the same close-minded types who found Professor Kinsey's original books provocative. It is not immensely entertaining, although it is very funny in spots. It does not have an especially tight script.

But it does teach about an odd, fascinating man and his ground-breaking work in a completely painless, easy-to-digest format, laced with lots of humor, and I enjoyed the learning process immensely. It might be whitewashed, and it ain't Michael Jordan great, as some critics might lead you to believe, but it is still mighty good, and I enjoyed the film for what it is, no less so because Dr Kinsey was the Prometheus of his own time, bringing light to a subject which had previously been shrouded in darkness and ignorance.

  • The leftmost link leads to DVD info.

DVD Features

  • Commentary with writer/director Bill Condon
  • The Kinsey Report: Sex on Film (80 minute feature about the making of the film)
  • 20 deleted scenes plus alternative ending with optional commentary by Bill Condon
  • Gag reel
  • Sex Ed at the Kinsey Institute
  • Interactive Sex Questionnaire
  • Theatrical trailer
  • The other link leads to the book which was prepared as a companion to the movie. The illustrated book includes the complete screenplay, an exclusive introduction by writer/director Bill Condon, extracts from histories and biographies of the period, film stills and complete cast and crew credits. 150 color photos.


  • Peter Sarsgaard does full frontal and rear nudity.
  • Laura Linney shows her left breast.
  • In Dr. Kinsey's photos and films, we see some close-up images of genitalia and fleeting looks at female breasts while couples have intercourse.

Tuna's thoughts in yellow


Kinsey (2004) is a first rate biopic of someone that not many people know much about. Kinsey was the first American to do a scientific study of human sexuality. His first publication was the male half of his study, and was very well received. The second volume, four years later, was the female story, and was met with outrage in 1953. After all, it reported that grandma masturbated, had premarital sex and extramarital sex, and sex with other women.

Indeed, the outcry has not ended even now, more than fifty years later. There was a huge campaign, mostly Web based, against the making of this movie. Kinsey spent his early years researching insects, but cared about his students, and eventually undertook to teach a course in sexuality to help disseminate accurate information to curious students. Kinsey's own wedding night had been a disaster, due to his large penis and his wife's stubborn hymen. Fortunately, competent medical help solved that problem, but most people in the 1940s did not have access to that sort of help. When he began teaching his course, he could not answer many of the questions his students asked simply because nobody had ever researched human sexuality systematically. He developed interview techniques to solicit honest answers from participants, carefully trained a staff, and, given his workaholic nature, collected a huge body of statistical data, which he then summarized and published, always respecting the anonymity of his test subjects.

Remarkably, the enlightened University that allowed his research was in Indiana. The Kinsey Institute is still there, and still trying to help people achieve a greater understanding of human sexuality. As someone who clearly remembers the 1950s, and the sexual climate of the time, I found personal meaning in this film. As a matter of fact, Kinsey quotes a certain book as an example of the myths and preposterous ideas that were prevalent at the time - the very book I sneaked from my parents bedroom and devoured for my first sex knowledge!

The film was very carefully researched and written. Getting it made was a several year struggle, and it finally ended up on a small ($10M) budget and a short shooting schedule. I found it one of the most consistently engaging biopics I have watched. This is especially significant in that it is essentially a talking heads movie, which I would normally hate. It is full of wonderful performances, especially from Laura Linney as Mrs. Kinsey. Liam Neeson was also brilliant as Kinsey.

To this wonderful film, they added an entire second DVD of extras, including deleted scenes, bloopers, a modern Kinsey Institute sex survey, and, most important, an 83 minute "making of" that is easily the best such feature I have ever scene. They cover all aspects of the film from inception through release, and intercut it with Kinsey type interviews with cast and crew.

Kinsey is worth anyone's time to understand, and this DVD package makes that an enjoyable experience. The MPAA, in awarding an R (there was a lot of worry about their reaction) commented that it would be rated R, and thank you for the education. Kinsey experts all agree that while some dramatic liberties were taken, it was true to Kinsey in spirit start to finish.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus out of four stars: three and a half   stars. James Berardinelli 3/4, Roger Ebert 4/4

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. It was budgeted at $11 million for production. It grossed $10 million.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, Scoop says, "This is a C+. A good biopic which is not great. A genre film which is safe and entertaining enough to come very close to mainstream appeal. Very close, but no cigar." Tuna grades it a B.

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