Every time the interviewees in Brigitte Berman’s 2009 documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist And Rebel say the words “people forget”—whether they’re talking about how conservative the ’50s were, how restrictive race and sex laws used to be, or the bygone days when magazines routinely sold in the millions—the point becomes less convincing. It isn’t that the motley crew of comedians, musicians, actors, models, and journalists that Berman interviews in Hugh Hefner are wrong about Hefner and Playboy’s role in the sweeping cultural changes of the ’60s and ’70s; it’s just that the repetition belies the point. So much has been said and written about all that happened to America between Eisenhower and Reagan, and there’s been so much debate about whether Hefner was a positive force (for promoting cultural sophistication and personal freedom) or a negative one (for objectifying women and normalizing immorality) that it’s hard to imagine anyone bringing anything new to the conversation.
And Berman doesn’t even try, really. Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist And Rebel is a rigidly straight bio-doc, bordering on hagiography. Aside from a few amateurish animated interludes, the movie sticks to the format of talking heads and archival clips, laying out the full Hefner story from birth to octogenarian-hood. And aside from some tongue-clucking interviews with the likes of the pious Pat Boone and feminist activist Susan Brownmiller, the voices in the documentary are overwhelmingly pro-Hefner—to the extent that the few objections come off as petty. Vintage footage of Hefner mixing it up with a skeptical Mike Wallace or William F. Buckley offers a glimpse of the more spirited documentary Hugh Hefner could’ve been. Also missing: more consideration of the business side of selling pictures of naked women. How did Playboy deal with its rivals? What sort of internal debates accompanied the decision to allow full-frontal nudity? Did the balance ever threaten to tip too far toward classy smut—or plain ol’ smut-smut—over the jazz reviews and political essays?
Regardless of what Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist And Rebel lacks in depth and style, it’s an engaging film because Hefner is an engaging guy. Here’s a man with impeccable taste and the boldness to push against taboos—not for shock value, but in a matter-of-fact way that made those taboos seem insignificant. The documentary shows how he cultivated a stable of great writers like Ray Bradbury and Alex Haley, and how his television show featured mixed-race bands and black comedians. It also shows Hefner holding court at the Playboy Mansion, mingling with pop stars, social leaders, and athletes, conferring his status of libertine cool on them while letting them legitimize his endeavors. Hefner shrewdly built his brand, then used it to advance causes he believed in, including women’s rights, gay rights, and marijuana legalization. While his story has been told over and over, it’s good to hear it again.
Still, it could’ve been told with more passion, and more reveling in its tricky contradictions. Berman buys too much into Hefner’s self-promoting, painstakingly airbrushed version of his life, in which a nice young man with deep concerns about his country’s sexual and social repression starts a magazine just, y’know, to help—not because there’s money in nudity or anything. Perhaps Hefner is sincere in his nobility, but there’s something backhandedly priggish about framing the publication of sexy photos as worthwhile only if they’re accompanied by Gahan Wilson cartoons.
Key features: None. Not even “likes” and “dislikes.”