It’s natural, when talking about writer-director Bill Condon's entertaining and somewhat provocative biopic Kinsey, to speak of Liam Neeson-- the actor has a naturally insinuating and sexual presence, woven with dramatic weight as well as grace, qualities that many of his most recent roles find no room to adequately exploit (Qui-Gon Jinn, anyone?) Neeson, as Kinsey, finds room within that presence to consider the professor’s insatiable thirst for knowledge in light of the relatively fearful exploration of the landscape of his own sexuality. This combination of righteous academic rigor and fumbling toward ecstasy lays the groundwork for the moment when Kinsey moves beyond simple cataloguing of the landmarks of a life and its work toward a somewhat more critical examination of that work, and it is here that director Condon employs his ace in the hole.
After suggesting in previous scenes that Kinsey’s own research team may be becoming uncomfortable with the sexual envelope-pushing within their own little social strata, Kinsey and one of his research partners, Pomeroy (Chris O’Donnell), meet with a colleague of sorts for a one-on-one interview. Kinsey has corresponded with the man, who has engaged in somewhat obsessive reportage and cataloguing of his own sexual behavior, for 10 years, but never imagined the man would ever agree to step out of the shadows for an interview. When he does, the movie’s probing intelligence suddenly snaps into clear focus. Kinsey and Pomeroy, and the audience, are forced to grapple with the darkest implications of the professor’s theories of the natural pansexuality of human experience, absent moral implications, in a manner from which less-courageous filmmakers would likely have fled, out of fear of losing an audience’s empathy for the lead character and his clinical journey. But there simply is no fear in the lesser-known performer who leads us into the dark heart of this scene.
William Sadler has perhaps a perfect name, with its suggestion of a certain proclivity for violent behavior, for a character actor who has spent a good portion of his career exploiting his sharp, hardened facial features and ice-blue eyes for their effectiveness as indicators of evil and villainy. His appearances in innumerable TV shows and in movies, most notably The Green Mile and Walter Hill’s inexcusably overlooked Trespass, would alone be enough to cement his visage in the Snidely Whiplash Hall of Fame. Fortunately, Sadler also has a lighter touch, one that he has exercised to grand effect in such disparate projects as Tales from the Crypt Presents: Bordello of Blood (he was the Cryptkeeper’s mummified card partner), Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (his inspired parody of Death, as envisioned by Ingmar Bergman, anyway, was a revelation to those who thought he was merely worthy of bad-guy status opposite Bruce Willis and Steven Seagal), and more recently in the TV series Roswell as a small-town sheriff torn between his civic duty and protecting the cast of smarmy teen aliens (sometimes those two impulses intertwine, sometimes not).
When he enters the room to begin his interview with Kinsey and Pomeroy, we’re somewhat disarmed by Sadler’s affable demeanor as forestry worker Kenneth Braun, and Braun’s claims of the documentation of his own vast experiences. Kinsey attempts a neutral posture, but there’s a distinct bristle upon Braun’s garrulously presumptive comparison of his own studies (and their purpose) to those of the professor’s. And Braun’s wild claim of being able to go from complete flaccidity to erection to ejaculation in 10 seconds flat, which Pomeroy dismisses as physiologically impossible, is fulfilled before their eyes in the movie’s wildest comic scene. As the fast and furious flagellation begins, Condon hilariously cuts to an obviously shocked Kinsey (to say nothing of Pomeroy) who, in his attempts to remain as detached and poker-faced as possible, still remembers to look at his watch in order to verify the time elapsed before Braun’s checkered-flag groans. It’s Harvey Keitel’s big scene in Bad Lieutenant sans the spiritual agony and lurid shock value—Braun does it because he can, and he’s delighted he can, and he’s delighted to do it in the presence of someone who surely will understand. And the audience, audibly grateful for the comic release, has no idea of the queasy glimpse into the abyss that Sadler is about to give them.
Braun (and Sadler) segues with an incredible absence of self-consciousness straight into the business of his own sexual history, and with his first nonjudgmental admission-- of his introduction to sexual intercourse at the hands of his grandmother at age 10-- the scene quietly begins to develop an undertow that Sadler, his affability intact as each new shocking statistic is revealed, nurtures with the mastery of a talented performer who's ready to seize the full opportunity that one rich scene affords him. From a first homosexual act initiated by his father at age 11, to his cataloguing of 17 members of his extended family with which he's partnered and the differing measurements of semen ejaculated in his youth as opposed to the amount produced at age 50, Braun captivates his interviewers, and Sadler the audience, with his sheer genial audacity. Kinsey and Pomeroy, though increasingly uncomfortable, attempt to maintain that precious detachment that the professor values as crucial to the subject's comfort and potential truthfulness.
But that veil of detachment is fairly shredded when Braun, a sudden awareness of added gravity that even he cannot regulate shading his coarsely handsome features, admits sexual relations with 22 different species of animals and over 9,000 separate people, including hundreds of boys and girls. His reference to them in the clinical terms he supposes will placate any outrage in these professionals, as preadolescent males and females, has little of the intended effect, and Pomeroy is driven out of the room in disgust when Braun casually asks Kinsey if he's ever seen a boy orgasm. Sadler tightens the reins on our throats with a brief chuckle after Kinsey responds in the negative, and his response-- "I guess that's why I'm such a catch, huh?"-- is blood-chilling in the actor's insinuation of himself into the professor's, and by extension our, most intimate confidence, with the full expectation of understanding, if not full-on endorsement of these acts as mere natural phenomenon to be catalogued and reflected upon. This insinuation, this drawing in of offender and audience into some kind of uncomfortable pact of fearless honesty, is the great epiphany Sadler affords us as an actor (It's also Condon's canny way, as a gay man, of drawing a line between his own sexuality, which Kinsey's studies ostensibly helped to demystify, even as they remained largely demonized, and Braun's amoral perversions, which some continue to insist even in 2005 are part and parcel of the gay experience.)
When Pomeroy storms out, Braun crystallizes the chasm between Kinsey's intent and the kind of behavior he's often taken to endorse. "I suppose someone like me really puts your beliefs to the test," Braun mutters, more put off by Pomeroy's indignation than embarrassed by it. Kinsey asks how and is visibly shaken by Braun's interpretation of those beliefs: "Everybody should do what they want." Finally, Kinsey allows himself some measure of an emotional reaction and harshly refutes what he sees as the man's disastrous misread of his work, to which Sadler adds a final grace note of resignation, a retreat back to the shadows of his own solitary experience, a place that Kinsey now knows certainly exists, and for many others beside Kenneth Braun. "You're a lot more square than I thought you'd be," Braun sighs, and the interview begrudgingly continues, into presumably even more disturbing territory, beyond the movie's dissolve into its own final scenes. But it's now a movie colored by Kinsey's fresh and stinging realization of the inadequacy of his previous attempts to classify human sexual tendencies and to grapple with sex as something not always separate from other instincts, like power, selfish satisfaction and, ultimately, love.
This scene wouldn't be nearly as smashingly effective without the fine cracks spreading throughout Neeson's rectitude as Kinsey, or the deft writing in the screenplay that uses Kinsey's outrage to comment on the homophobia of Condon's own time. But it is, above and beyond these crucial elements, Sadler's scene to either oversell or retreat from. He does neither, but instead infuses his moment with a fearless attempt to understand evil from the inside, using his own subtle variations on Kinsey's nonjudgmental approach to illuminate, rather than blot from view, the horrific impact and implications of Braun's behavior. That approach is central to how he raises Kinsey's stock as a piece of historical storytelling in this single scene. That he does so in such brilliant, seductive fashion is an indicator of the candor that Sadler routinely brings to the genre roles in which he often finds himself, roles other actors often condescend to and toss off as just another day's work. It's truly exhilarating to see him get the chance, in a film like Kinsey, to really shine in non-genre work and profoundly impact the entire film's trajectory. This actor, who is often paired with fresh-faced kids, doesn't often find himself going toe-to-toe on screen with an actor of Neeson's stature and caliber. But if Neeson has half the sensitivity in real life that he displays in his role as Alfred Kinsey, I suspect then that it is he who is counting himself lucky, especially in these days before the Oscar nominations are announced, to have been in a scene, in that scene, with a talent as alive and kicking as that of William Sadler.