A Week in Books: making waves in the icy pool of post-liberal culture

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A rangy and charismatic outdoorsman, brave to the verge of folly, he shocked mainstream America with a pair of revolutionary works in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

A rangy and charismatic outdoorsman, brave to the verge of folly, he shocked mainstream America with a pair of revolutionary works in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They showed that the American family, and the conforming society that it upheld, harboured unruly passions and desires that the silence and repression of patriarchal power might hide but could never wish away. The price of this lid-lifting courage was controversy, ridicule, the denial of a platform - and, in due course, a sharp dose of McCarthyite harassment.

Here, however, the similarities between Arthur Miller and Alfred C Kinsey end. Miller, the social critic as radical playwright, rode the storms that Death of a Salesman and The Crucible had stirred to live through the long creative maturity that closed last week, at the age of 89. Kinsey, the social critic as sex researcher, died exhausted in 1956, the fame of his twin Reports into male and female sexuality (in 1948 and 1953) already darkened by political assaults and professional slights. Yet in the year of the zoologist's death, their paths do, figuratively, cross. Then, the great dramatic unveiler of American family secrets marries - in Marilyn Monroe - the lovely, lost symbol of an eroticised mass culture. Kinsey, with his dogged team of sex surveyors at Indiana University, helped to bring that world to birth.

The neo-conservatives who now run much of American life have yet to ruin Miller's renown, although they probably want to try. With Kinsey, the demotion of the former pioneer and liberator into a sleazy fixer of evidence and erotic gang-master, a dodgy scientist who allegedly took a soft line on paedophilia, happened long ago. This prosecutor's portrait found its final shape in James H Jones's meticulous and unforgiving 1997 biography, now reissued by WW Norton (£11.95). It is Jones's cold-hearted, manipulative magus who lies behind T C Boyle's Kinsey-inspired novel, The Inner Circle.

Thus Bill Condon's new biopic on Kinsey's life aims to make waves in the icy pool of post-liberal culture. You could call it a backlash against the backlash. Whatever your position, Kinsey (which opens here on 4 March) deserves a viewing for Condon's finely crafted script and two towering central performances from Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, as Professor and Mrs K ("Prok" and "Mac"). Condon took as his source Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's 1998 life of the sexologist. This warmly sympathetic study of Kinsey has been updated (Pimlico, £8.99) with a vigorous defence of a "much-maligned, courageous, difficult and great man" against Jones and the neo-con detractors. Half a century on, the sex wars have merged into wider, muddier culture wars, as Gathorne-Hardy pointed out as he spoke up for the movie, and for Kinsey, at a recent screening.

In a climate of polarised opinion, it makes a sort of sense that the Napoleon of the sexual revolution should attract two fine biographies as sharply split as books about the real Bonaparte. Yet friends and foes alike both tend to frame the Kinsey story as an American family romance. To liberals, he serves as the Good Father: gifted, forceful but lovably eccentric, a pathfinder whose fearless authority opened the road to freedom. But conservatives can see only the Bad Father: a charlatan and selfish deceiver whose mask of command hid self-indulgence and exploitation.

The truth is that both those characters might coincide in a single body; in Kinsey's case, they arguably did. We probably could not have enjoyed his heroic removal of a burden of ignorance, guilt and fear from millions without his grimly one-dimensional view of sexual acts and identities. Condon's screenplay does its considerable best to flesh out such nuances. As for a finished picture - well, that would have called for Arthur Miller.