Apparently you should read Playboy for the articles. If you did, you’d already know the shocking revelation of the doc Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel—essentially, that the now octogenarian jammies-wearer is not only a playboy, but also an activist and a rebel.
Unleashing a classy nudie mag in the sexless ‘50s, we’re told, was just a fraction of his more or less wildly successful de-repressing of America. His ‘zine sold not just a progressive view of sex, but a progressive view of politics, race relations and even (though this point isn’t as convincingly argued) gender relations. He published the work of blacklisted authors. His variety shows boasted integrated musicians. His clubs booked Dick Gregory when no one booked black comics. He employed a pre- Roots Alex Haley to do thrillingly candid interviews with the likes of Miles Davis and, at one point, a Neo-Nazi. In the doc’s view of the 20th century, Hefner is less a leisurely horndog swimming in silicone than a Zelig-Forrest Gump type, present and often instrumental in just about every game-changing event in the last half-century.
This may be true, but it doesn’t make for particularly compelling viewing. Indeed, though the credited director is Brigitte Berman, Hugh Hefner often feels like it could have been made by Hugh Hefner. Fascinating as his life is, this is a Wikipedia doc: a purely expository jaunt through history that, on the few occasions it goes deeper, remains shallow or incoherently defensive. (It’s not a great sign that the too-brief section on Hefner’s battles with ‘70s feminists gives the last word to Jenny McCarthy.)
It’s incredible to see the young Hefner as he suavely bulldozes conservative ideals; the perfect image of his unique power is the show Playboy After Dark , where he and intellectuals would speak openly and radically about the day’s issues while surrounded by scantily clad babes. But even at over two hours, this hagiography—which never dwells on Playboy ’s cultural attaché today, much less its financial state post-Internet porn—favors a reductive culture-war reading. On the side of good are Hefner and his contently smiling minions, ranging in quality from Gore Vidal to Gene Simmons; on the other, a few token prudes, including Pat Boone, feminist Susan Brownmiller and windbag Dennis Prager. No doubt that’s how Hef sees it, too.
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