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Review: Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

Rabbit run: Hef poses as a history maker
By BETSY SHERMAN  |  August 10, 2010
2.0 2.0 Stars

 

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel | Written and Directed by Brigitte Berman | with Hugh Hefner, Gene Simmons, Mike Wallace, James Caan, Jenny McCarthy, Josh White, Dizzy Gillespie, Sammy Davis Jr., Dick Gregory, and Joan Baez | Phase 4 Films | 124 minutes

INTERVIEW:Hugh Hefner. By S. I. Rosenbaum.

You might expect that a sycophantic documentary about Hugh Hefner would suggest that Hef invented tits and ass. Brigitte Berman's Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel goes farther. It has the beans to imply that Hefner was, if not an inventor of, then a major force in the civil-rights movement, and that his actions in the '50s and '60s paved the way for the election of Barack Obama. The strange thing is that Berman has enough clips and credible talking heads to make an interesting case.

Berman is best known for her jazz documentaries, so her appreciation for Hefner as creator of the seminal Playboy Jazz Festival creates an understandable point of entry. As the film shows, Hefner's embrace of black musicians and comics on his syndicated TV shows and in the Playboy Clubs did help break down barriers. But when the subject inevitably returns to sex and gender, the man who put bunny ears and tails on scantily clad waitresses starts to teeter on his pedestal. Berman's mixed-bag documentary, though diverting and informative in some ways, reduces the girlie-mag phenomenon to harmless camp, and it paints the Hef detractors she interviews, whether right-wingers or feminists, as party poopers.

Robert Heath's 1992 Hefner documentary ended with the swinger domesticated, married, and a father to toddlers. Now, with Hefner having resatyrized himself in the public imagination via his multiple-girlfriend configurations, Berman presents him as the octogenarian looking back on a storied past.

In 1953, the urge to make a big splash drove the Chicago native to launch a men's magazine. He landed the rights to a Marilyn Monroe nude photo for the debut issue. Playboy, with its rabbit-head symbol, purveyed an ideal of creamy, pneumatic feminine beauty — and attracted some damn fine writers. It also fought back, and won, after the US Post Office refused to give it a second-class permit. That was the start of a concerted effort to strike down antiquated legislation regarding sexual portrayal and practice.

After his divorce, Hefner "starting living the life I was espousing." A tuxedoed Hef is seen hosting Playboy's Penthouse, his late-'50s TV variety show, which would be set in a hip apartment during a party. Between clips of artists such as Josh White, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sammy Davis Jr. (whom Hef presents with a puppy), comic Dick Gregory affirms that Hefner showed audiences an unsurpassed array of black performers, who were invited not only to play and sing on camera but also to converse. Hefner's late-'60s show, Playboy After Dark, gave a platform to critics of the Vietnam War.

Berman seems to suggest that Hefner's perfectionism, which compelled him to construct a physically flawless standard of feminine beauty, makes him want to fix what he views as a society flawed by racism and repression. Hefner simply wants America's government and religious institutions to treat adults as adults.

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