Bustin' out and bustin' boundaries in Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel
FILM The overlapping causes of liberating women and liberating sexuality have long been frenemies. There is no reconciling how the sexual revolution forwarded both women's independence and their exploitation as sexual objects by industries overwhelmingly focused on male desire and purchasing power.
Nobody figures higher in that saga than Hugh Hefner. Fair to say he probably played as big a role in triggering said revolution (at least for men) as the pill. Yet he also cemented Slim-Waisted Young Blonde With Big Tits (real or factory-ordered) as the prevailing straight-male standard for desirability. An image that, decades later, strangleholds popular imaginations and private insecurities more than ever.
Brigitte Berman's new Canadian documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel acknowledges that conflict without seriously exploring it. Instead, her focus is on "Hef"'s admittedly under-appreciated role as force for progressive change. Not just in expected arenas like censorship and sex laws, but also in public-spirited concerns from racial equity to film preservation. Hef has put his money where his editorial mouth is, with a passion probably equal to (if for many incongruous with) his need to be surrounded by glossy babes now one-fourth his octogenarian age.
One can fault Berman, as the purported first outsider "granted full access" to peek past Playboy's corporate gates, for not being tough enough. Hefner's personal life (such as it's been for a lifelong, briefly speed-addicted workaholic) isn't much touched on. First wife and family simply vanish from the narrative once our protagonist decides to become his publication's suave, anything-but-monogamous "playboy" archetype.
No ex-wives are heard from, no kids aside from Christie Hefner, who became her absentee father's empirical second-in-command. No ex-girlfriends either, apart from Playmate-turned-B-movie-regular Shannon Tweed, who admits that being his "No. 1 girl" still wasn't enough because "I don't share well."
Casting him as a First Amendment and civil rights champion, the film skimps on the full breadth of artistic-slash-business involvements, from two decades' worth of softcore video Playmate "portraits" (do I own the 1994 La Toya Jackson one? Does it contain a gauzy music vid implying sexual abuse by Papa Joe? Double yes!) to prior dabblings producing regular movies. (The regular dabblings included Roman Polanski's 1971 post-Manson Macbeth and Peter Bogandovich's fine 1979 Saint Jack, not to mention hard-to-find 1973 flop The Naked Ape, a sketch-format riff on Desmond Morris' pop anthropology tome. Its awkward, touching mix of wink-wink smut and crusading good intentions distill peak-years Playboy.) Nor does it acknowledge the Playboy empire's latter-day struggles as the Internet has rendered print erotica a quaint antiquity.
Beyond these omissions, Berman still strains to encompass a very colorful life in two full hours. Even if it eventually feels like a very long Wikipedia bio, her film is never boring. And Hefner remains notably articulate, despite all eccentricities. (Natch, he's interviewed throughout in silk pajamas or velvet bathrobes, currently cohabiting with just three drastically younger blondes down from a post-second marriage harem of seven.)
Playboy (initially to be called Stag Party) started in 1953 as a direct response to Hefner's coldly unaffectionate family background and dissatisfaction with his prematurely boring home-career respectability. 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.