LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX
March 14-20 2005
As he played Alfred Kinsey, Liam Neeson grew more fascinated by the professor and his brave quest to increase understanding of sexuality. As Neeson admits to Leigh Singer, in making the film, he learned a thing or two himself.
Admittedly the question came out a little skewed, but Liam Neeson seems to have taken it as a personal challenge. Not that he’s shouting and fuming; on the contrary, the lilt of his resonant Irish brogue remains softly understated. Then again with a commanding 6’ 4” frame and unfailingly direct stare, you don’t have to impose yourself on a room, it just happens naturally.
The enquiry that’s piqued him is one of playing ‘mentors’ onscreen perhaps another inevitable side effect of having such innate presence and authority. Was his starring role as Kinsey, the scientist whose pioneering research into human sexual behavior sent shockwaves through post-war America, a man as much student as teacher, more satisfying than the all-knowing gurus we’ve grown accustomed to seeing him play?
‘”All these mentors”?’ he quizzes. ‘Name them.’ Erm, not that it’s screened yet, but the new Batman film? ‘OK, I’m a mentor in that,’ he concedes wryly. ‘That’s one.’ With the pressure on, it’s a good few seconds before tentative ventures of Star Wars and Gangs of New York. Neeson watches this floundering with a mix of mild irritation and amusement before giving the entire exchange short shrift.
‘Listen, it was just a great part, you know?’ he states simply. ‘It certainly had a dimension of complexity to it and was one of the best scripts I’ve read since Michael Collins. It’s not the normal biopic that's for sure and [writer-director] Bill Condon wanted to avoid the whole “he was born, then he did this, then he did that and then he died” approach that we've all seen ad infinitum.’
The ‘mentor’ query was actually meant to compliment the actor on what’s possibly his most complex and successful screen performance yet, certainly light years ahead of anything demanded from being a Jedi Master. Given the 52-year old Neeson’s personal charm and physical stature, it’s unsurprising to find that he’s often been first choice for strong, charismatic leaders Collins, Rob Roy, Oskar Schindler. Professor Alfred Kinsey has undoubtedly similarities, but the role also has a fragility that Neeson has rarely been asked to display onscreen. Despite being a fan of Condon’s earlier Oscar-winning Gods and Monsters, he had serious reservations about the part.
‘When Bill offered me this I couldn't see it fit,’ he recounts, ‘until I heard an audiotape of Alfred Kinsey delivering a lecture. It cuts after 20 minutes, it's a year before he died [aged 62] and he starts talking about sex in this very frail and weak voice. But about five minutes in there's a clarity that comes into his voice and he ends up sounding like a 30 year-old man. That gave me a key. I thought, of course the man’s a teacher. He just loved disseminating knowledge. I think it was the glue that got me on that process.’
Kinsey is genuinely a biopic with a difference: intelligent, challenging and refreshingly objective about its central protagonist. As a Harvard-educated zoologist Kinsey’s specialty was gall wasps and in amassing over a million specimens, he came to the conclusion that no two were identical. It was an idea he kept at the forefront of his research into the human libido.
Finding a marked lack of sex education among his biology students at Indiana University, in 1938 Kinsey began teaching a ‘marriage course’ of unprecedented sexual frankness. Yet as people came to him for more and more detailed answers, Kinsey realized that no one had ever conducted the clinical research that any field of science depends on. He took on the challenge himself and, along with his core team of assistants, went on to develop and refine a coded rubric of 350 questions to allow people to talk freely and confidentially about their sexual histories. What’s perhaps even more astounding in that cloistered era is that around 18,000 people willingly did so.
‘Kinsey apparently had some magic quality to cut a swathe through every strata of American society,’ marvels Neeson. ‘From pimps to mechanics to judges of the realm, he had this same effect and was able to enter their world and just elicit this stuff from them. He went to great pains to tell them, listen you are really helping science and helping mankind ultimately. So they felt inspired by him.’
As the film shows, Kinsey’s journey from gall wasps to human sexuality is inextricably bound up in his own past, raised by a Bible-thumping Methodist minister. ‘Kinsey was forced to attend these ridiculous lectures on morality,’ Neeson outlines, ‘so it kind of inspired him to eventually take on this subject that nobody talked about. Even saying the word sex was regarded as a kind of sin.’
It’s something that Neeson affirms he can relate to, growing up in a devoutly Catholic Ireland in the 1950s and 60s. ‘The Kinsey books probably only got to Ballymena last year,’ he jokes. Bill Condon has commented that the film ‘acts as a sort of litmus test for one’s own ideas about sexuality’, but Neeson remains less convinced. ‘It did tell me something from a historical aspect about sex and society, American society in particular,’ he notes, ‘but I didn't really put my own sexuality under a microscope.’
Unlike Alfred Kinsey. A great deal of the controversy that still surrounds the man and his methods relate to his attempts to create an open sexual environment among his team and their wives ‘swinging’ long before the 60s. Kinsey also treated himself as a subject for data, detailing his own bisexuality and self-experimentation, though as Neeson sees it, ‘not as frequently as everyone makes out. And he used his own sexuality as a springboard to investigate and empathize with those people he was talking to.’
In 1948 the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, with its candid detailing of forbidden topics like masturbation, extra-marital sex and homosexuality, was a revelation. It sold over 200,000 copies within months, was translated into eight languages and turned Kinsey into a phenomenon, the ‘American Freud’. The corresponding tome on female sexuality released five years later, however, was too much for the more puritanical 1950s. Funding dropped away and Kinsey became a scientific and cultural pariah.
Though subsequent research backs up many of Kinsey’s then-controversial claims, even today he’s still targeted by US conservative and / or Christian groups, who have labeled him a ‘sexual psychopath’ and accused Kinsey and his acolytes of not simply reporting illicit sexual behavior but even engaging in paedophilia as part of their studies claims his supporters vehemently deny.
‘These groups are desperate to demonize him,’ Neeson glowers. ‘They just see Kinsey as the one responsible for all the liberalization that has happened in America and the West and they are determined to keep resurrecting him and burying him again. It's kind of frightening.’
As for the incendiary paedophile material Kinsey gathered, Neeson is unwavering in his defense. ‘Kinsey was a scientist and he would have protected that total confidentiality to his death,’ he argues, ‘no matter what crime these men may have committed.’ In fact, he adds, only nine such men were interviewed and the vast majority of material came from one in particular. ‘It was spread in such a way that made it seem that this data came from more than one man,’ Neeson grants. ‘Was he wrong to use it that way? I think so, absolutely, but it can't be swept under the carpet, it has to be analyzed in some way.’
Speaking of contentious information, surely time to chance another touchy question: who’s the better kisser Laura Linney, who plays his devoted wife Clara, or Peter Sarsgaard, the assistant Clyde Martin with whom Kinsey dabbles? Neeson stares for a second, then smiles. ‘I didn't approach the male love scene differently. Peter Sarsgaard's a buddy. Listen, I played Oscar Wilde on stage so I was used to kissing Tom Hollander eight times a week! I certainly know what razor burn feels like.’
Neeson’s theatre work, though sporadic nowadays, is generally overlooked, despite having been instrumental at key moments in his career. John Boorman saw the young actor play Lenny in Of Mice And Men on the Dublin stage and cast him for his first screen role as Gawain in Excalibur. In 1992, not only did Neeson’s Broadway role in Anna Christie opposite Natasha Richardson lead to their eventual marriage and two sons, Michael and Daniel, but it’s also where Steven Spielberg became convinced he’d found his lead for Schindler’s List. And his 2002 appearance in The Crucible came opposite Linney, his Oscar-nominated leading lady here, with whom he shares a touching chemistry.
Indeed perhaps the ultimate irony of Kinsey‘s work, for all the rigorous fact-finding, is gauging where love fits into all the science. Neeson nods in agreement. ‘The paradox was that Kinsey was blissfully happy,’ he says, of his lifelong relationship with Clara. ‘His marriage was an absolute bedrock to him and ultimately the film, I think, is a love story between them, between a man and a woman.’
Kinsey opens on March 4th.
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