A film review by Craig J. Koban December 23, 2010


2010, R, 124 mins.


A documentary by Brigitte Berman

There are certain overwhelming images that come to mind when one thinks of Hugh Hefner.   

People that are only vaguely familiar with him know him as the creator and C.E.O. of one of the most potent and longstanding magazine/media empires of the last century in Playboy Enterprises.  Then there is the image of “Hef” as the deeply hedonistic senior citizen that spends his days in silk pajamas and bathrobes that is surrounded by a squadron of loyal and easy-on-the-eyes blonde playmates.  It would be no understatement at all to say that this is a mogul that people both love and hate: men fantasize about wanting to be Hef and feminists hate the man for what he has done for the objectification of women. 

Yet, there is the “other” Hugh Hefner that many are not aware of…or that some have forgotten altogether, and that is the heart of Brigitte Berman’s uniquely fascinating and refreshingly informative documentary, HUGH HEFNER: PLAYBOY, ACTIVIST, AND REBEL.  The Oscar-winning director presents Hefner that most are familiar with, to be sure, but it also champions the media entrepreneur as an extremely famous celebrity that did things that were daring and that mattered.  Of course, he made his fortune and business empire by “objectifying” the beauty of the female form, but Hef was also a staunch and enterprising supporter of civil rights, civil liberties, freedom of speech, and freedom of choice at a time when they were extremely taboo.  Beyond that, he made sex and sexuality mainstream and took America’s Puritanical instincts regarding them and dramatically re-cultivated them.  Not too many magazine publishers from humble beginnings can claim that. 

The film follows the fairly pedestrian “talking heads” formula that punctuates many docs, but Berman more than makes up for this prosaic presentation of interviews spliced in with rare footage with how varied and democratic she is in terms of the people she interviews.  Her choices of subjects include Hefner himself, appearing gracious, friendly, and candid most of the time, but she also traverses across interviewees that range from the obvious (Gene Simmons and Shannon Tweed), the not-so-obvious (Dick Cavett and George Lucas, to name a few) to the surprising (like Christian entertainer Pat Boone as well as a few radical feminists like Susan Brownmiller).  What this variety does is to evoke the rich tapestry of polarizing opinions about the pop icon while simultaneously giving us a broad snapshot of his publishing origins, his personal triumphs and accomplishments, as well as many of the heated controversies that also dogged him throughout his career. 

What’s really intriguing is how well Hefner takes all of this attention; he more or less treats both the accolades and condemnation with a confidently sly smile, a shrug of the shoulders, and with a low-key charm and sense of humor.  But the documentary goes well beyond the interviews in the smaller, more obscure details of his life: He was Chicago-born elder son of teachers; he served in the military for the U.S. Army as a newspaper writer from 1944-1946; he went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a B.A. in psychology and a double minor in creative writing and art and he did so in just two and half years; and he even took a semester of graduate studies in sociology and gender and women studies at Northwestern University. 

His creation of Playboy magazine is worthy of a film story all in its own: Hefner worked as a copywriter for Esquire in the 1950’s, which he eventually left due to a salary dispute (they would not give him a $5 raise).  In 1953 he mortgaged his possessions, got a bank loan for $600 and raised $8000 from 45 investors (a grand of it coming from dear old mom) to launch the premiere issue of the magazine (which, incidentally, went through many title permutations, like "Gentleman" and "Stag Party").  The December 1953 issue featured the infamous 1949 nude calendar shoot of former Norma Jean-turned-Marilyn Monroe and the rest, they say, is history.  Note: Hefner claims to have never met the actress-icon in his life. 

The sections of the doc I found most illuminating and revealing are the ones that focused on the things Hefner did via his newfound fame and fortune in the advent of Playboy launching.  Consider the syndicated TV program he pioneered called "Playboy After Dark", which he owned and controlled that went out of its way to feature African American performers and mixed race singing groups (which was a definitive no-no for television of the pre-Civil Rights era).  That was daring enough of a move, but perhaps even more audacious (and potentially costly for its time) was him implemented policies in his New Orleans Playboy Club that allowed both white and black patrons, despite racist southern laws that explicitly forbid it.  There was one club in particular in Louisiana where a Black comedian performed in front of a white audience for the first time.  That man was Dick Gregory, whose interview segment reveals his pride and appreciation for the manner Hefner spit on bigoted laws and did what was decent and just. 

Of course, men bought Playboy "for the articles," one of the biggest lies (and running gags) of the publishing empire.  Yet, Hefner did take the magazine’s literary pursuits very seriously.  The revered authors whose work graced the magazine ranged from Ray Bradbury to Margaret Atwood to Alex Haley (the latter who infamously interviewed an American Nazi during one issue).  If you look past the pinups and the centerfolds, there is no doubt that Hefner – a savvy, smart, and creative journalistic force – wanted to make his magazine one with a high editorial pedigree.  He yearned for people to gaze lovingly at the pictures while engaging intellectually at the writing. 

Perhaps one area that Hefner gets no respect for is how he fearlessly and tirelessly worked to break down the sexual repressive ideology of the 1950’s onwards.  One amazing story he recounts involves him posting bail to free a man of a 50-year prison term for…felatio…which was absurdly illegal at the time.   He make great efforts to overturn state laws regarding the legality of felatio and cunnilingus, but beyond that he also worked diligently to combat segregationist laws against interracial marriage and homosexuality (in 1955 Hefner courageously printed a short story by Charles Beaumont that was a sci-fi parable about how being gay was accepted and being straight was ostracized).   

The doc also hones in on the lowly controversies of his life, some which were drummed up and completely unfounded: like, for instance, being arrested for selling obscene literature in 1963 – which was overturned – and the death-via-drug-overdose of his former secretary, Bobbie Arnstein in 1975, which somehow was superficially linked to Hefner’s stance on the legalization of certain narcotics.   His stroke in 1985 at the age of 59 is briefly covered, which led to Hefner re-evaluating his promiscuous, highly active, and free wheeling lifestyle, during which he tried to slow down.  Recent history has proven otherwise. 

If there is an area where Berman’s documentary fails then it’s clearly with why Hefner has never fully developed a monogamous relationship that has stood the test of time.  Discussions of his unwillingness to settle down with one woman are kind of glanced over, not to mention that little insight (outside of the very obvious) is given as to why Hefner seems happy and content with sharing his bed with multiple 20-year-old cover girls as opposed to a single life partner.  We also get little insight into his life as father and a husband (only one of his many exes is interviewed) and, moreover, there is nothing in the way of commentary from his parents.  His mom kicked in a $1000 to help him launch Playboy; what’s her stance on her son’s magazine? 

Feminists have long cried that Playboy and Hef have made woman into objectified sex objects, a claim that he never denies: “Women are sex objects to men, but they are more than that too,” he explains, but his defense never goes beyond that somewhat vague rhetoric.  One irony of the film is that its female director never places a direct and serious challenge on him as to how he portrays women in Playboy.  There is one ridiculous analogy provided by Gene Simmons, during which he explains the hypocrisy of calling Playboy pornography and works of classic paintings featuring ample nudity as art.  Sorry, Gene, but last I checked young men were not masturbating to the naked visages plastered on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling.  Just saying...

Despite some areas of investigation that are either ignored or simply glossed over, there is much in HUGH HEFNER: PLAYBOY, ACTIVIST, AND REBEL that is worth investing in for two-plus hours.  What the documentary does exceedingly well and with an authority is to present the Hefner that rarely gets focused on in the media.  One of the saddest paradoxes that the film indirectly discloses is shrewdly discussed by one of Hef's friends, Dr. Ruth Westheimer:  Hefner has crafted such an overwhelmingly recognizable image of himself as an aging hipster with surgically altered blonde goddesses at his every whim that it seems to have had the indirect side-effect of making all of his genuine social activism in the past seem murky in comparison.  Thankfully, though, we have this documentary to help cleanse our perception of this man’s past and the surprising things he did that did not involve publishing nuddie pictures.

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