Is Hugh Hefner a soft-core pornographer or social trailblazer? Director Brigitte Berman decides for you.

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

on July 30, 2010 by Mark Keizer
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For a not-so-subtle clue as to what director Brigitte Berman thinks of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, read the last four words of her documentary's title. Some might have preferred a biography called Hugh Hefner: Pornographer, Exploiter of Women and Culture Destroyer, although then Berman wouldn't have gotten Hef himself to narrate the film and recount in soft, congratulatory tones the major milestones of his life. That life, which by holy fiat refuses to end, has been extraordinary eventful. His signal achievement has survived the uptight 1950s, the '70s Women's Lib movement and the Reagan-era ascendancy of the Religious Right. His newest foe is possibly the most dangerous. The Internet has made Playboy's tasteful nudity seem old fashioned, and without a clear strategy for maintaining his empire in a New Media world Hef's creation is starting to look creaky. While he mulls his next move, we're invited to watch this cultural icon take a late-career victory lap. Those victories, though, should not be discounted. Berman insures we come away with a serious appreciation for how the Chicago-born publisher chafed against the racial attitudes of the time. One may question his methods for opening up the national conversation about sex. One cannot question the part he played in the fight for racial equality. Hugh Hefner has earned the gift of a fawning, non-confrontational greatest hits package and that's exactly what he's received, even if it's not what we necessarily wanted. As such, this will only preach to the converted (and maybe the perverted) and is best suited to DVD or cable.

Having a woman direct a documentary about Hugh Hefner is akin to having African-American Robin Quivers co-host Howard Stern's racially and sexually incendiary radio program. If your theoretical enemy is willing to work with you and sing your praises, how bad can you be? If only Berman's talents were put to more investigatory use. Her explanation for why Hugh Hefner never uses the Ten Items Or Less lane at the sex partner supermarket is because he didn't get enough hugs as a kid. That's about as psychologically deep as the movie gets. Instead we learn that Hefner was the best jitterbug dancer at Chicago's Steinmetz High School and as he matured he became interested in sexual taboos in American society. He went so far as to write a paper at Northwestern University comparing the sex statutes of every state (possibly so he could break them all, but that is unconfirmed). After leaving his copy editing job at Esquire in 1952, Hefner borrowed from family, friends and the bank to create the first issue of the magazine that was originally to be called Stag Party. When Stag Magazine sent a cease and desist letter, Hefner appropriated the name of the Playboy sports car which was produced from 1947-51. The first issue, which hit newsstands in 1953 and featured Marilyn Monroe, sold 52,000 copies. By its fifth anniversary, Playboy's circulation was over one million, surpassing standard bearer Esquire.

Berman (whose Artie Shaw: Time is All You've Got shared the 1986 Best Documentary Oscar with Down and Out In America) and co-editor Richard Vandentillaart beautifully combine interview footage, archive materials and rather awkward animated interludes to detail a life overflowing with incident. At two hours plus, the viewer is always engaged, especially when learning of Hefner's contribution to civil rights, which would come off as self-aggrandizing if it weren't so surprising and true. Playboy's Penthouse, the brand's first television series, premiered in 1959 and had the gall to feature black singers, eliminating any chance of distribution in the south. Clips from these shows are simply wonderful, highlighted by Hef presenting Sammy Davis Jr. with a puppy and Sammy returning the favor with a song about the Windy City. The first Playboy Club opened in Chicago in 1960, with franchises in Miami and New Orleans opening soon after. When Hefner learned it was against the law to allow blacks into the club's Louisiana branch, he bought the club outright from the franchise owner so he could admit anyone he damn well pleased. During the McCarthy era, Hefner booked blacklisted performers on his syndicated show while the magazine ran articles from blacklisted writers like Dalton Trumbo and a profile of Charlie Chaplin when he was being labeled a Communist. Alex Haley's slave-trade classic Roots began as a Playboy feature, which further advanced the magazine's reputation as a place for serious fiction from serious writers, including John Updike, Ian Fleming and Ray Bradbury (whose book burning classic Fahrenheit 451 was sold to Playboy for $400).

So Berman makes a great case for Hefner the social activist and Hefner the entrepreneur, the things you want front and center in a Hugh Hefner hagiography. What Berman basically punts is the separation between Hefner the hero and Hefner the person, a distinction admittedly hard to pin down. Carting out his involvement with Vietnam War orphans is a clear sign she has no intention of rubbing the high gloss off Hefner's sophisticated swagger to discover what lies beneath. Doubts and insecurities are not addressed. The arguments of his enemies have no punch and merely burnish his status as a survivor. Catholic groups from the 1950s decrying the magazine's "buttocks presentation" only make Catholic groups from the 1950s look silly (which they were). Author and feminist Susan Brownmiller, who sparred with Hefner during a famous episode of Dick Cavett's talk show, puts little bite into her assertion that Hefner is "a dangerous fellow" although she continues to reject the notion that Playboy made sex guilt-free for all red-blooded Americans. Tragedies like Dorothy Stratton's death and the suicide of his secretary, Bobbie Arnstein, earn brief mentions, as does Hefner's flirtation with Dexedrine and daughter Christie's unexplored assertion that the burden of empire building made him a fairly absentee father. Otherwise, this is a life well lived, mostly in pajamas. It is, of course, entirely possible that there's very little daylight between Hefner, the embodiment of the Playboy brand, and Hefner the former jitterbug king of Steinmetz High. There's too much money at stake and too many girls to enjoy to risk (or even desire) being anything other than what he is. And what he is, like it or not, is a brilliant businessman who found a niche and exploited it until it became more than a collection of products. It became a lifestyle and its founder became its personification. The magazine, the core component of the brand, has survived fairly unchanged while the culture has repeatedly changed around it. Somehow, despite the puritanical streak baked into our national identity, we've withstood the monthly onslaught of naked female bodies and the open embracing of our sexuality that Playboy has unapologetically encouraged. Those pretending we're not inherently sexual beings, and who'd prefer to vilify the man who made a fortune proving we are, will not enjoy this documentary. Then again, they probably don't enjoy much of anything.


Distributor: Phase 4 Films
Director/Screenwriter: Brigitte Berman
Producers: Victor Solnicki, Brigitte Berman and Peter Raymont
Genre: Documentary
Rated: R for graphic nudity and sexual content.
Running time: 124 min
Release date: July 30 NY/LA

 

Tags: Hugh Hefner, Brigitte Berman, Victor Solnicki, Peter Raymont
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