**The Conversations: In a year of war and red-state cultural mores, filmmakers and their creative counterparts meet to discuss the “bigger picture” as it relates to motion pictures.**
On a cold Monday morning, in the sprawling living room of his colonial-style Hollywood Hills home, author Gore Vidal sits down with “Kinsey” director Bill Condon to reflect on what may be one of the bigger ironies of the award season: that the Fox Searchlight film about a controversy has inspired controversy itself. And while both men look more like bankers than revolutionaries, one way or another, both are default experts on the subject.
At 77, Vidal is an august hero, and the years have not bled much fight from his bones. He remains what he’s always been — a regal, dissident polyglot. He’s written 23 books, five plays, more than 200 essays and a good number of screenplays and short stories. Following the events of 9/11, he’s published “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace,” “Dreaming War” and “Imperial America,” all of which are a primer on the militarization of America and its impact on our constitutional rights. These were followed by public appearances where he defended his recent publications and tore into the conservative malaise currently sweeping the land, the fuss over “Kinsey” being merely one symptom.
Condon, 54, has pushed against pat notions of sexuality in his last few projects. His 1998 “Gods and Monsters” centered on director James Whale, who was open about his homosexuality at a time when Hollywood was hidden in the velvet closet. Then came the screenplay for “Chicago” — of which he says, “Musicals are our action films” — and finally “Kinsey.”
The two men sit side by side in a living room decorated with wooden, hand-carved Polynesian masks, a gift Vidal received from a stranger to whom he had given money to help pay for AIDS medication. He hung them up for no real reason when, in fact, he has always hated them.
To begin the discussion, Condon pulls out a fresh copy of the New Yorker, opening it to an article about Judith Reisman, the loudmouth patron saint of the anti-Kinsey movement who has made headlines denouncing the film. “Reisman also endorses a book called ‘The Pink Swastika,’ — reads Condon, “which challenges the ‘myths’ that gays were victimized in Nazi Germany. The Nazi Party and the Holocaust itself, she writes, was largely the creation of the German homosexual movement. Thanks to Alfred Kinsey, she warns, the American homosexual movement is poised to repeat those crimes.”
Condon shakes his head in disbelief, noting that since the study was first published, Kinsey has been accused of everything anyone could imagine. “But 20 years ago they landed on ‘pedophile’ and that’s the one charge they’ve stuck with because everything else has become more palatable,” says Condon.
It’s a bogus charge, much like the I-know-it-when-I-see-it definition of pornography. To wit, when Reisman has been asked by journalists for solid facts to back up her case, she’s said, “It’s just a feeling I have, I’ve known pedophiles, it’s just a sense I have.”
Vidal shakes his head slightly. There’s nothing here he hasn’t seen before. “What do you expect?” he says. “We have a totally ignorant people who are drenched in the Blood of the Lamb. We’re stuck with this stone-age religion that has many, many superstitions about sex and everything else. And there is, by and large, no proper educational system for the lower classes. So how on earth are these people ever to know anything? That’s why I call it the United States of Amnesia. Information does float about, the press does eventually write about everything. Even if people read the press at its most awful, they would’ve learned a little something. But they watch Fox News and they watch the football game and they’re all just wandering around in a kind of daze with all this dumb stuff in their heads. The last election is proof of this.”
Condon listens carefully, moving forward in his chair, thoughtful and careful about his next words. “We all think of ourselves as progressive,” he says, “as having moved forward. But, in actuality, that desire to be part of the group is still with everybody. All liberation is liberation of an individual nature. And it’s no easier now than it’s ever been.”
While both men are frontline observers in the ongoing cultural wars, their shared connection goes further than that. In 1948, Kinsey read Vidal’s book, “The City and the Pillar,” a landmark work on the American gay experience. He was so enthralled by the writing that he sent a fan letter to its author. “His letter,” recounts Vidal, with a droll smile, “thanked me for my work in the field.”
Kinsey followed up with an invitation to take the author’s sex history, which was done one afternoon on the mezzanine of the Astor Hotel. It joined the other 28,000 histories Kinsey collected while surveying the vast landscape of America’s sexual predilections, with the end results published in 1948 under the disarming moniker “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.” Despite its clinical presentation, Vidal feels the study had an impact greater than Hiroshima. “The atom bomb made absolutely no difference on foreign affairs,” he says, “but Kinsey changed how the whole world looked at sex.”
Fifty years later, he still marvels at the outcry over “Kinsey,” led by culture warlords such as James Dobson and Robert Knight, who, apparently, still believe in the sanctity of the missionary position. Knight recently called Kinsey “the godfather of the homosexual activist movement, the campaign to mainstream pornography and, even, the campaign to strike down abortion laws.”
While the liberation of Kinsey the individual is the subject of the film, Condon’s version is far more informative than titillating. Despite the rage from the right, it is primarily a fictionalized biopic about a one-time entomologist who switched disciplines, deciding to apply the rigorous scientific method to the study of the sexual behavior of a species of greater primate. Yet in his day Kinsey got unprecedented cooperation from his subjects, particularly from people like Vidal. “He wanted to do a book on the homo/hetero balance in the arts,” Vidal says. “He was a little suspicious because so many people in the arts seem to sway both ways. He was always trying to interview actors and musicians. He got to Leonard Bernstein and afterwards you just couldn’t keep Lenny away. I think he became the Scheherazade of the Kinsey report.”
Along these lines, perhaps in preparation for the never completed arts study, Kinsey interviewed the first and second stage casts of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” He wanted to see if the difference between their onstage performance (the presumption was that the first cast was better) could be found in their offstage behavior. “It wasn’t always that offstage,” Vidal says. “Marlon (Brando) was fond of screwing between acts, and there was Mrs. (Jessica) Tandy, such a proper English lady, horrified.”
At this, Condon laughs. It is not just what Vidal is saying, it is how he is saying it. His diction, while always crisp, is mildly anachronistic. The words all have a slight aristocratic tinge. “Horrified,” Vidal repeats.
Even if you ignore the outcries from the fringes, Condon thinks the general subject matter of “Kinsey” still makes many uncomfortable. “A great tension still remains between the truth of our sexual preferences and our desire to fit in,” he says. “All these histories would end with people asking Kinsey, ‘Am I normal? Am I normal?’ It was a word that Kinsey didn’t believe in, preferring, ‘Am I common?’ or ‘Am I rare?’ ”
And while, one might assume, Condon’s efforts have been toward placing gay culture more on the common side of the equation, and Vidal seems to enjoy tipping the rare side of the scale, both champion Kinsey’s idea that all sexuality exists on a sliding scale.
VIDAL: “There’s no such thing as a gay person or a straight person. Some of us are more of one thing than others, but no one is any one thing. There are no identifying signs, no simple classifications. Human beings are human beings, there are no two alike.”
CONDON: “There’s something very constraining about the labels gay and straight, as there is with any label used in identity politics.”
VIDAL: “They’re not nouns, they’re adjectives, they describe actions. I’ve never met any person who does either one of these things 24 hours a day. It reminds me of something my father said at the time the Kinsey report first came out: ‘I read how there are many people doing this and many people doing that, and I can tell you there’s a whole lot of nothing going on.’ ”
Vidal mentions that many of the things Kinsey uncovered are still, for people on the right, “valence buttons” today. ” ‘Save our children from the fags’ is a valence button,” he says with a shrug. “It gets the masses out and voting.”
While certain segments of the American political spectrum have embraced — at least from a vote-gathering perspective — gay culture, they remain terrified by the spectrum in the middle, as Condon points out. “The idea of bisexuality, that everyone is somewhere along that sliding scale, is incredibly threatening today,” he says. “Even politicians, who can hide behind the idea of a gay identity, don’t know what to do with the idea that everyone is something in the middle.”
But if everyone is in the middle, Vidal says, “that means everybody’s here to participate in the infernal party, to act against nature, to sin. And that can’t be right since our little Lord Jesus was against it. But our little Lord Jesus wasn’t against it. He said nothing about homosexuality. It was St. Paul. It was Leviticus. That rule book from the Babylonian days that came up with a list of proper activities, condemning homosexuality and, brace yourselves out there, shellfish. Not to mention rayon; you were hell-bound if you went in for rayon. How they sold a Bronze Age religion in the 21st century, well, that is the trick of the week.”
After speaking the phrase “trick of the week,” Vidal stops. He lets the meaning sink in, as his gaze drifts to his Polynesian masks.
Toward the conversation’s end, Vidal gets to the merits of the movie itself. He tells Condon how much he enjoyed it. Considering all the award season fawning that’s already come Condon’s way, you’d expect him to be a man inured to praise. But this is Gore Vidal, and Vidal’s appreciation freezes him for a moment, turning him from director into schoolboy. He smiles and says, “It was my pleasure.”