Of course Bill Condon expected it. How do you take on the iconic Alfred Kinsey, Dr. Sex himself, and not court considerable controversy?
Ironically, Condon, the writer and director behind "Kinsey," one of the year's more provocative films, is the rather mild-mannered type, a "please"-and-"thank-you" kind of guy, a quiet intellectual. The life of Kinsey, the zoologist-turned-sex researcher who's inexorably linked to anything sex-related, attracted Condon not because it was scandalous, as others would say, but because it was complex.
Here's the bow-tied scientist, pen in hand, going around the country, to living rooms, to gay bars, to prisons. He's collecting sexual histories -- in the 1940s and '50s -- while keeping his own sexual secrets.
"It's a wonderful contradiction. It's what drew me in," says Condon, an Oscar-winning screenwriter for "Gods and Monsters" in 1998, and, five years later, an Oscar nominee for doing what seemed impossible: delivering a coherent, sizzling, ingenious script of the stage hit "Chicago." There's already Oscar talk for "Kinsey," a film that critics note is distinct in its frankness about sex.
"He's a man who said to America, 'Tell me the truth about what you're doing sexually,' and then remained completely guarded about his behavior," Condon continues.
It's been a fast rise for Condon, a relative unknown in Hollywood six years ago. He's alert, engaged, sitting on the edge of his chair in an upscale Washington restaurant, sipping iced tea over a lunch of crab cakes. ("What? Thirty-four dollars for crab cakes?" he says. "How is that possible?") Dressed in a striped blue long-sleeved shirt, dark jeans and a navy blue blazer, Condon is on a day-long press junket, explaining -- in some ways defending -- "Kinsey" the film and Kinsey the scientist.
To Condon, Kinsey, the father of the sexual revolution, a product of his time and ahead of it, is as relevant as he's ever been: a 20th-century American icon who, in a twisted way, fits into a 21st-century America that bemoans Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction or a racy opening for "Monday Night Football" while spending billions on pornography and cheering on scantily clad cheerleaders during halftime. "Kinsey" is a story of a country obsessed with sexuality, Condon says. He quotes Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, who in his biography "Kinsey: Sex the Measure of All Things," said that America is the most licentious culture since Rome, and it's the most puritanical culture ever invented.
"How can both exist?" Condon asks. "That's a source of tension, always."
Condon looks at Kinsey, looks at the country, way deep in this cultural divide, and asks: "Think about it. How far have we really come?"
Born in New York City to an Irish Catholic family in Queens, Condon, a reader of Plato and Aristotle, graduated from Columbia University with a degree in philosophy. In the late 1960s, young Bill took the subway to attend classes at Regis, a private all-boys high school run by Jesuits in Manhattan.
"Regis changed my life. It was just completely . . . you know . . . liberating," Condon says. "It was hard to be rebellious because the priests were much more radical than you could ever hope to be; we would get off from Moratorium Day to go protest the war."
It was at Regis, too, that he met Neil, his first "serious romance." Neil was a junior, Bill a sophomore. They were together for two years. The Condons -- Dad worked for a brokerage firm, Mom was a housewife -- discovered the relationship. Initially, the family talked about it, then "it was never talked about," Condon says.
He moved to Los Angeles, not knowing a soul, in 1976. He wanted to go to film school at UCLA. Instead, Condon was discovered by a producer who read his freelance piece -- "ruminating about the summer movies in 1978," he remembers -- for Millimeter, a trade publication. That kicked off his writing career. These days, he lives on the hill behind Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, where his Oscar rests on a bookshelf in his office, "sort of out of view." He serves on the board of IFP/Los Angeles, a group for independent filmmakers and film enthusiasts, and helped form the Independent Writers Steering Committee of the Writers Guild of America.
"Now, being an openly gay film director, you sort of flatter yourself that you might be more progressive than some other people," says Condon, cleaning the bread crumbs off the table with the palms of his hands. He looks up. "But in the course of doing research for 'Kinsey' " -- a three-year process -- "I came up against my own biases."
Kinsey was a taxonomist, a man of graphs, grids, numbers. One of his lasting contributions to the American lexicon on sex is the Kinsey Scale. His scale -- of 0 to 6, with 0 being exclusively heterosexual and 6 being exclusively homosexual -- is based on the theory that sexuality is a continuum. For Kinsey, bisexuality is natural.
"For a lot of gay people, and I was more in this camp than I thought because I know a lot of people who are gay and get married because they aren't prepared to deal with their homosexuality, bisexuality doesn't exist," Condon says. "I was skeptical about it. I was less comfortable with the idea than I knew I was. I didn't come face to face with it until I started really thinking about it. Kinsey was really somebody who moved on that scale."
Kinsey, as played by Liam Neeson, is a flawed, tortured, ultimately courageous character, made in the same mold as the British expatriate filmmaker James Whale, the subject of "Gods and Monsters." In that film, Whale, who died in 1957, is a complex study, the director of the first two Frankenstein films, whose idea of a fine day was wearing a three-piece suit as he copied a Rembrandt. Played by Ian McKellen, Whale, who was openly gay, was an outsider in old-era Hollywood. By the end of "Gods and Monsters," a $3 million film, it isn't clear who's the monster and who's the god. By the end of "Kinsey," with a budget of $11 million, it isn't all too clear if you'll sympathize with or revile Kinsey. So far in his writing-directing career, finding easily accessible characters, in films with easily drawn heroes and villains, isn't Condon's thing. It's the conflict, the contradiction, the tension within characters' lives that have been the stamp of his works.
"I don't want to make movies about heroes," Condon says, simply. "I want to make a movie about fascinating people."
"You know how in American movies, anybody who's at the center of the movie, even if it's Hannibal Lecter, you love them because they're always the smartest person in the room, they're always, in some way, doing the thing you wish you could do," Condon says. "Kinsey is not that. He's clinical. He's cold. He's scientific. He's socially retarded in some ways. At some point while writing the script, I thought to myself, 'Oh my God, what have I got in the center of my movie?' "
To many, Kinsey is a seminal figure of the 20th century. The Kinsey Reports -- as in his books, "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" (1948) and "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" (1953), based on 18,000 interviews -- are considered groundbreaking work. Among his conclusions: 92 percent of men and 62 percent of women masturbated; between 67 and 98 percent of men and 50 percent of women had premarital sex.
To others, Kinsey was a perv, a predator, a practitioner of junk science. He interviewed a pedophile. He encouraged his subordinates to swap wives. He slept with both men and women.
"Alfred Kinsey is responsible in part for my generation being forced to deal with the devastating consequences of sexually transmitted diseases, pornography and abortion," says Brandi Swindell of Generation Life, a college-oriented group based in Boise, Idaho, and Philadelphia. Judith Reisman, author of "Kinsey: Crimes and Consequences" and "Kinsey, Sex and Fraud," says: "Kinsey's life required sadism and bizarre activity. Condon is blaming the victim and turning Kinsey into a tragic hero."
He cannot escape such comments but Condon can wince at them.
"It's not about Kinsey," he says. "The man has been dead for almost 50 years now. I think those who attack him believe that if they can destroy his reputation that somehow what has happened in all these decades would disappear."
Condon's off to Los Angeles in five hours, in time to meet his partner of eight years ("a budding screenwriter and director") and a friend for a late celebration -- it happens to be Condon's 49th birthday.
"It just strikes you, we really are talking about life-and-death issues. One of the basic ideas in the movie is that we all have an individual, unique sense of sexuality but that we all want to feel normal, feel a part of the group, feel that we belong," Condon says. "I hope the people who see the film don't just consider it as an amusing look at a moment in our past. I hope they connect it to today. I hope they connect it to themselves."