Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel
Too much flattery gets ‘Hugh Hefner’ nowhere
Does Hugh Hefner own a pair of jeans? It’s a question that misses the point of the Hefner experience. But it’s the sort of thing you leave Brigitte Berman’s fawning new Hefner documentary wondering. He sits around “Hugh Hefner:
The documentary is a serious look at Hefner’s life and cultural value. It gathers dozens of old friends (Tony Bennett! Gene Simmons! James Caan!) and one old foe (lonely Susan Brownmiller; what’s the opposite of an exclamation point?) to walk us through how Hef, as he is often called, is such a mensch or, if you’re so inclined, a misogynist. Like the current hit documentary about Joan Rivers, “Playboy, Activist and Rebel’’ seeks to recast its subject in a flattering pioneer’s glow.
Hefner recounts that he founded the magazine in the early 1950s while his first marriage was petering out. He wanted to dismantle sexual taboos — social ones, too. He wanted a showcase for the libidinous and the literati. Yes, someone regurgitates the old line about reading the magazine for the articles, which sounds like a cliché now but remains possible. The genius of Playboy was that it was whatever page you happened to be on. Whether we need to be reminded of that genius for 112 minutes is another matter. But it’s useful to remember that an old Playboy is a model of good design and bright, imaginative photography. “Porn’’ isn’t the word that comes to mind when browsing back issues. Now it’s porn.
There’s plenty of archival footage, starring a handsome young Hefner and including clips from “Playboy’s Penthouse,’’ which ran for one year from 1959 to 1960. Based on the time Berman spends on it, you’d swear it was on forever and changed the world. The producers did sincerely feature black performers — Sammy Davis Jr. goes electric over Hefner’s gift of a puppy — who played shows on a living-room set. But it always looks like they’re interrupting a key party.
The camera is equally committed to watching attentively as the grayer model of Hefner (he’s 84) walks us through his philosophies and accomplishments. Berman’s access is limited to what he’s willing to share, which isn’t anything terribly personal. This isn’t an observational opportunity the way the Rivers film is. Berman doesn’t follow Hefner around his mansion. Does he ever leave it? She doesn’t appear to ask anything uncomfortable or challenging. I don’t recall Hefner being asked anything at all. Once in a while, an animated interlude appears as a transition between stages of Hefner’s life (they look like bad “Archie’’ comics), and having to watch it is more embarrassing than being associated with a Hefner magazine.
One wants to find enlightenment — or at least entertainment — in this reconsideration of Playboy and of Hefner. But it’s tainted. For one thing, the movie happens amid the eternal war over gender and within the distorting realm of sex. Ninety percent of the talking heads belong to men. Most of the women have either worked for Hefner, married, dated, or been sired by him. A feminist like Brownmiller seems like a token skeptic. And the argument that Hefner mattered substantially to black America probably needs more diverse proponents. It isn’t that I don’t believe Jesse Jackson and Dick Gregory when they praise Hefner’s contributions to the civil rights movement. I’d just be less likely to roll my eyes if Angela Davis or Eleanor Holmes Norton were on hand to concur.
The other thing is that Playboy Enterprises is undergoing financial retooling. It’s fending off potential buyers, including Penthouse. The film seems primed to apply a degree of sociopolitical importance both to Hefner and his magazine. In doing so, there’s a lot the movie doesn’t bother with: the lawsuits, his disdain for monogamy, the whole sordid history of the mansion, those pajamas, how decades of partying nearly killed him (it’s true not much is made about his philanthropy, either, but still). Instead, we hear about how touched he was to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. This a man whose X-rated life has been given PG-13 treatment.