The documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel claims to go beneath Hef's bathrobed persona to reveal the man who championed civil rights, equality, and free speech. Critics say it's a two-hour infomercial that glosses over Playboy's objectification of women.
The film, which opens today, shows that over the years Hef has aligned himself with various laudable causes, including civil rights, the anti-war movement, and equal rights for women. However, it doesn't examine the negative effects Playboy has had on American culture, or why Hef felt a nudie magazine was the best way to promote these causes.
One possible explanation is that German director Brigitte Berman's goal was to show "the other side of Hugh Hefner that had not yet been portrayed in any of the prior documentaries about him." But since it ignores the darker side of Playboy, the film comes off as a Hefner hagiography.
Below, the reviews:
Hef was one of the few rich and famous people who openly challenged segregation and obscenity laws. And although most of his life has been about him being surrounded by scantily clad women, the documentary hints that he was often lonely and longed for the real love he found at times.
The film humanizes Hefner in a way no one has attempted to do before on the big screen. His recent dalliances with his overexposed ex-girlfriends from the reality show "The Girls Next Door" become unimportant once the documentary shows video of him being arrested for standing up to ridiculous obscenity laws, or challenging religious intolerance followed by pictures of him receiving a NAACP Image Award from Jim Brown for Hefner's tireless work to eradicate racist segregation laws.
Unfortunately, Berman skips past the darker implications of Hefner's sexual universe and omits discussion of how the periodical business - and access to erotic imagery - has changed in the Internet age. Still, the movie remains an involving look at an American icon as well as an adept snapshot of our national zeitgeist from the McCarthy era through the Reagan years.
That's the message of "Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel." Part hagiography and part history of the girlie-magazine-turned-literary-journal known as Playboy, the documentary by Brigitte Berman takes a mostly uncritical look at the man known almost universally as Hef. In the movie's view — and in the views of the vast majority of its talking heads — the now-84-year-old publisher should be remembered not for his iconic skin mag, but as a tireless champion of gay and civil rights, free speech and liberty, and as a ferocious opponent of censorship, violence, war and religious persecution.
Those few unlucky souls who appear on camera badmouthing him — mainly feminist Susan Brownmiller, singer Pat Boone and conservative talk-radio host Dennis Prager — end up sounding like humorless nerds at best, and puritanical killjoys at worst. "Without some suppression of the sexual genie," Prager sniffs, "happiness is not possible."
No, the Hugh Hefner in this movie is Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi and William Kunstler all rolled into one.
The documentary emphasizes the magazine's literary and cultural aspirations. Television shows like "Playboy's Penthouse" and "Playboy After Dark," which brought jazz and folk music into the nation's living rooms and featured racially integrated guest lists, were groundbreaking in their day.
The movie ultimately makes a strong case for Mr. Hefner as a consistent and underappreciated champion of racial equality and sexual emancipation. But that emancipation had a dark side. There is simply no getting around the fact that Playboy, for all of Mr. Hefner's assertions that it helped level the playing field in the battle of the sexes by affirming women's right to pleasure, also objectified women as compliant, ornamental playthings. As for the man who invented it all, he remains a mystery in the film, living out his days in sybaritic bliss.
The false logic at the heart of the documentary holds that because Hefner aligned himself with various laudable causes through the years (civil rights, the antiwar movement, etc.), his magazine is a force for positive change. No one in the documentary questions whether Hefner could have accomplished all the same things without publishing photos of topless women ("girls," as the oh-so-enlightened Hef calls them) dressed like rabbits. According to Tony Bennett, once readers finished masturbating to the pictures, they actually read the articles-a fairly insulting characterization of the typical Playboy reader as needing a spoonful of cheesecake to help the medicine go down. The fact that magazines that publish insightful journalism and quality fiction without the nudie pics (The New Yorker, Esquire) are still around, and in better financial shape than Playboy, which has been losing money and subscribers for years and came close to bankruptcy in 2008, would disprove this notion.
Viewed from several decades' distance, the whole package doesn't seem to fit together too well: Are we supposed to believe that this wholesome secretarial-school nubile cares what you read, or buys into the whole proto-metrosexual Playboy package of jazz, modern art, cologne, tailored suits, high-octane automobiles and friendship with Negroes? No; like those things, she was an accoutrement, a lifestyle accessory. She brought with her a specific and ego-critical form of gratification, but it wasn't the only important kind.
It wasn't entirely fair of '60s feminists to insist that Playboy was hostile to female pleasure or female desire, and it was clearly ludicrous to claim that no women found the Hefner vision of masculinity attractive. (One does not have to approve of the objectification of women to notice that some women, some of the time, enjoy it.) Satisfying your woman, sexually and otherwise, was absolutely part of the Playboy self-conception, but she was always a second-class citizen in that universe. The idea that she might want to be the protagonist of her own universe, as vast and mythic and fueled with mysterious desire as that of Playboy, would never have occurred to Hugh Hefner, or pretty much any other American man of the time.
German director Brigitte Berman barely conceals her admiration, but perhaps that's because there's a lot to admire. Beginning in the 1950s, Hef's secondary career as activist and provocateur began when he realized that, if the current sex laws were enforced, most men would be serving time. The consequence was an ongoing personal crusade for individual and civil rights that would have a profound effect on national policy; whether risking his livelihood to employ blacklisted writers like Dalton Trumbo or support controversial figures like Lenny Bruce, Hef revealed the passionate libertarian inside the libertine.
More revelatory than risque, Hugh Hefner offers a tantalizing timeline of what we view as the ideal woman's body, from peachy and cushiony to tanned and toned, from Monroe curves to Fawcett athleticism. Squeezed between the mammaries, we find a respectable record of hard journalism and provocative fiction, like Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.
Sure, I watch documentaries about Playboy-but only for the stories. With the strenuously high-minded Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, you might actually forget that the berobed icon really has a thing for tits. Hef's massive empire, built on its celebration of the female form, gets short shrift in an overlong profile that dwells on historic interviews by Playboy writer Alex Haley, intellectual TV chats and the mag founder's workaholic appetites. The result is a frustrating coyness that goes a long way toward negating what was truly provocative about Hefner's salad days: the creation of a lopsided if unencumbered lifestyle for men and women, symbolized by the unending party at the Mansion.
Mention is not made of the concurrent women's movement until an hour and twenty minutes into this too-long documentary. It is summed up briefly by pointing to televised debate in which Hefner and Brownmiller participated. It took him 35 years to formulate a rebuttal to her suggestion that he come on television with a bunny tail glued to his rear-end, and here it is: "If women weren't sexual objects there wouldn't be another generation - that's what makes the world go around. It doesn't objectify women in that other, negative sense. But I just didn't have the language back then."