When most people think of Hugh Hefner visions of silk pajamas, the Playboy mansion and naked Bunnies with a staple in their middles come to mind. For more than fifty years Hefner has been the hedonistic symbol of sexual liberation, publishing his monthly girlie magazine and living a life that would make some envious and others blush. A new documentary from Oscar winner Brigitte Berman titled “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel” aims to paint him not as simply a dirty old man but as a leading general in the twentieth century culture wars.
The slickly produced doc combines rare archival footage, cleverly manipulated still photographs and loads of talking heads to lead us through Hefner’s life. More concerned with Hefner as an agent for social change than the grotto dwelling Lothario he‘s so often portrayed as in the press. We learn that he bought back two segregated Southern Playboy Club franchises, reversed their admittance policies to fully integrate them; we’re also told how he shattered the powerful House of Un-American Activities blacklists by hiring members of the infamous “Hollywood Ten” to write for Playboy and appear on his late night chat show “Playboy ‘s Penthouse.” His track record of funding legal battles over birth control and abortion are also carefully detailed as is his early support of gay rights. In 1955, when homosexuality was still illegal in many states he published “The Crooked Man,” a short story by Charles Beaumont which depicts a world where homosexuality is the rule and heterosexuals are a persecuted minority.
Hefner has been at the forefront of twentieth century sexuality and for all the doors he helped open and for all the repression he managed to unbottle it is still hard to buy his steadfast claim that he is a feminist. Sure, he has backed many of the right feminist causes, but feminist writer Susan Brownmiller and others (although notably absent is Hefner’s greatest fem foe Gloria Steinem) make the point that there is a difference between sexual objectification and sexual liberation. Hefner has been treading this fine line for decades and his reasoning that the feminist movement considers sex the enemy rings as hollow here as it did decades ago when he first started spouting about it and sexual subjugation. It‘s even more of a clunker today as Playboy has degenerated into a symbol of female repression; exactly the opposite of Hefner’s original dream.
It’s hard to separate Hefner from the sexual politics he has made his life’s work and Berman doesn’t try. There is no doubt that the man is a cultural revolutionary, but the film plays simply like a timeline of his highs (the lows are conveniently forgotten). It’s a gas to see the vintage “Playboy After Dark” footage and get a glimpse of the inner workings of the infamous mansion, but a bit more depth, a few harder questions would have made this an interesting cultural history instead of a collection of Hefner’s greatest hits.