The man and the magazine
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, July 30, 2010
Hugh Hefner is an American hero. And not just to 14-year-old boys.
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.
And truth be told, you've got to give the man some credit. As early as 1954, Hefner's Playboy serialized Ray Bradbury's anti-book-burning novella "Fahrenheit 451," following it up with Charles Beaumont's "The Crooked Man" in 1955. That sci-fi tale satirized homophobia by depicting a world in which straights, not gays, were stigmatized. Black performers and interracial singing groups were regular guests on the Hef-hosted TV show "Playboy's Penthouse," at a time when much of America wasn't ready to even admit they existed.
So, yes, he opened -- or, rather, kicked down -- more than a few doors. (The first African American playmate, as the magazine's centerfolds are known, appeared in 1965). And he hardly seems quite as "dangerous" as Brownmiller and others keep saying he is, without providing terribly much evidence, except to suggest that the Playboy ideal of pulchritude fosters an unattainable -- and unhealthy -- notion about what real women look like. Have they seen a Barbie doll lately? Yet Berman's film ignores Hefner's blind spot -- large enough to drive a truck through -- about his magazine's objectification of women.
But when all the fanboy bloviating is done -- by the likes of such balding and/or Grecian Formula-ed satyrs as Gene Simmons, Robert Culp, James Caan, David Steinberg, Tony Bennett and Tony Curtis -- another picture of Hefner emerges. It isn't the pornographer and corrupter of America's youth (though Boone does accuse Hefner of doing more than any other single individual to break this country's moral compass). But it isn't the portrait of a civil libertarian either.
With the pajamas that he never seems to change out of -- with his priapic fixation on the series of pneumatic blonde girlfriends less than half his age that he still rotates through -- sometimes seven at a time -- the Hugh Hefner that the film leaves us with seems less playboy, activist or rebel than dirty old man.
There may be something to celebrate, or at least acknowledge, about the way he changed the world. But there's also an underlying sadness about this boy -- this Peter Pan with Viagra -- who never grew up.
Contains obscenity, occasional discussion of sex, and lots and lots of nudity.