Bustin' out and bustin' boundaries in Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel
Raising funds himself, he gained enormous attention with a first issue featuring pre-stardom nude photos of Marilyn Monroe that everyone had heard about but few had seen.
Promoting "a healthier attitude toward sex," not to mention the shocking notion that "nice girls like sex too" Playboy then sought to pedestal "girls next door" rather than pro models or strippers swiftly brought a backlash. A successful fight against the U.S. Postal Service was just its first legal battle. As noted in the film, the most morally righteous opponents often proved the most hypocritical, including Charles Keating who pronounced pornography "part of the Communist conspiracy," then decades later went to prison for 1980s Savings and Loan fraudulence and fundamentalist Christians like late loon Jerry Falwell.
Meanwhile Hefner used the enormously popular periodical (and syndicated TV variety-show spin-offs Playboy's Penthouse and Playboy After Dark) to articulate a "Playboy philosophy" stretching way beyond hedonistic libertarianism. He employed Red Scare-blacklisted talent; showcased African Americans in hitherto segregated contexts; and campaigned for abortion and birth control rights and against draconian punishments for sodomy and marijuana. The girly mag gave voice to countercultural and anti-Vietnam War sentiments, deliberately stirring controversy via in-depth interviews such as Roots author Alex Haley's with American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell.
Hefner got an eventual NAACP award, among other kudos. But as Dr. Ruth (or is it Bill Maher? Sorry, there are too many celebrities sampled to keep track) says, the "escapist" side that spun Bunny boobs into bazillions overshadowed the earnest intellectual. Veteran feminist Susan Brownmiller is cast as the unsexy scold who loses points for labeling Playboy's often extraordinary taste in literary and critical voices (Updike, Mailer, Bradbury, etc.) a mere clever ruse to legitimize its jismy gist. Yet who can argue with her vintage challenge that Hefner demonstrate true gender equality by going public "with a cotton-tail on your rear end"?
It would be nice to hear from more critical voices not just the odd ludicrous one, like born-again MOR crooner and repentant former Playboy subscriber Pat Boone. Blaming Hefner for "breaking the moral compass" of our nation, he's the sole interviewee photographed against a wall of vainglorious mementos apart from KISS' aviator-shaded Gene Simmons, presumably grumpy because for once he's discussing someone else's slutty serial cocksmanship. (These two have more in common than they'll acknowledge: see Boone's unforgettable 1997 CD In a Metal Mood.)
By any fair appraisal, Hefner looms large among 20th-century societal game-changers. This undeniably entertaining documentary celebrates his heroism. Yet it can't help getting across on cheesier snapshots. Who can resist glimpses of Playboy's Roller-Disco and Pajama Party, a 1979 prime-time network WTF featuring the combined talents of Richard Dawson, Chuck Mangione, the Village People, and Wayland Flowers and Madame? Plus jiggling Playmates on wheels, of course. Now that is a Rorschach of American "liberation" as fucked-up perfect as you'll never find.
HUGH HEFNER: PLAYBOY, ACTIVIST, AND REBEL opens Fri/20 in Bay Area theaters.