Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel
Directed by Brigitte Berman
I might as well cop to it: I have been known to read Playboy, though for the articles of course. Playboy was once among the most literate and leftist of general interest magazines, a combination New Yorker and Harper's, but with boobs. But beginning around 1980—with the election of Ronald Reagan, the coincident sudden encroachment upon the centerfold of fake breasts, and the murder of film actress and reigning Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten— the glossy began the long decline from which it has never recovered. Today, Playboy Enterprises is rumored to be for sale.
Too bad then that Stratten's death gets short shrift in Brigitte Berman's oft-fascinating documentary, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel. Too bad also that only twenty minutes of the film's two-hour runtime are alloted to the years since 1971, when the Chicagoan flew west on Big Bunny, his black stretch DC-9, and set up shop in a Holmby Hills mansion-cum-zoo and grotto.
Granted wide access to her subject beyond the typical one-on-one interview, Berman presents us with artifacts of juvenilia, snapshots of high school reunions, even home movies of Hef's 50th birthday party (there's Warren, there's Jack) and 1989 wedding to his second wife, complete with paparazzi helicopters circling audibly overhead. But this access, though it's what makes Playboy, Activist and Rebel so compelling, had to have come with strings attached, and in any event, Berman's portrait of America's greatest pornographer never risks making him look bad, except maybe for a brief mention of a one-time addiction to Dexedrine, though that too is explained away as the function of a workaholic spirit.
Don't get me wrong, the lord of bunnies deserves all the props this film throws his way. In print and practice, Hefner was an early advocate for civil rights, gay rights, contraceptive rights, a woman's right to choose, and the legalization of marijuana. Dude even received an award from the NAACP, and how many white guys his age—he's now 84—can say that? But Hefner was also a pied piper of capitalist hedonism and male prerogatives. He filled Playboy's pages with bachelor pads and hi-fis, sports cars and single malt Scotch. And naked women, lots of naked women. ("Girls" is what Hefner called them, as one of his critics points out.) It was a lifestyle hippie radicals and Mad Men alike could aspire to.
Yet contradictions like these in the "Playboy Philosophy" (the title of a regular feature in the magazine) go unacknowledged in Playboy, Activist and Rebel, along with any serious consideration of Hef's personal, political, or professional failings. Berman seems content to let him off the hook with ribbing from longtime secretary Mary O'Connor and some rather feeble attacks from dated feminist Susan Brownmiller, who tut-tuts the "misogynist" in vintage Dick Cavett episodes and then all over again in recent conversation.
Berman's interviewees, with the exception of Jenny McCarthy, are mostly out-of-touch Baby Boomers like Brownmiller, and in some cases even older. While there's nothing inherently wrong with this-—nd while the director, to her credit, elicits a trove of inadvertent money quotes from Pat Boone, Gene Simmons, and George Lucas ("I create fantasies, Hef creates fantasies")—Hefner the man would have benefited from the critique and praise of voices younger than Tonys Curtis and Bennett. Because Berman's senior cast only serves to remind us of the codger we know from The Girls Next Door, not the jet-set rake of old. Sad but true, a giant of the print era is hanging on at the margins, harmless and slow as the medium that made him famous.
Opens July 30