Brigitte Berman’s Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel will likely confirm whatever preconceived notions viewers have of Mr. Bathrobe-and-Pajamas. Hefner turns out to be the ultimate Rorschach test for sex and gender in the last half of the 20th century.
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A cast of seemingly thousands chime in on the pros (mostly) and cons of Hefner and his iconic magazine — everyone from Pat Boone, William F. Buckley, Dennis Prager and Susan Brownmiller to Gene Simmons, Pete Seeger, Mike Wallace, and Tony Bennett. Even George Lucas gets a big share of screen time.
Hefner gave Berman unprecedented access to his meticulously archived Playboy files; he also allowed her final cut of the film. But what makes the movie most compelling is that everyone offers at least a grain of truth, although it’s the more ardent — whether detractors or supporters — who get off the most ludicrous lines. Pat Boone’s conclusion that “Hugh Hefner is and always has been a pornographer” reveals a comforting unfamiliarity with porn sites, while Kiss co-founder Gene Simmons proclaims there isn’t a single man of any age or in any period of human history who “wouldn’t give his left nut to be Hugh Hefner.”
Playboy’s shooting star began to fall in the ‘70s as feminist criticism entered the mainstream, and it’s never really recovered. While the film might err on the side of adulation to some, Berman’s admiration for her subject isn’t fatal. Hef, as his buddies call him, has been blamed for everything from breaking down the moral order to objectifying women and worse. Berman documents his support of racial equality, freedom of speech, humanitarian causes — efforts that went beyond what mere public-relations sheen would require.
Hefner’s preference for showcasing a particular type of the female physique undoubtedly contributed to a limited notion of beauty among women and men, but his influence can’t compare to the chronic billion-dollar ad campaigns waged by cosmetic companies touting make-up products so toxic they’re dumped off on US consumers after being banned in Europe.
Just when the film begins to feel a little long, there’s a scene towards the end in which Hef mentions the end of his 9-year marriage to Kimberly Conrad. When the pajama-clad octogenarian blithely speaks about the joys of being able to act like a 20-year-old again, it isn’t “The Swinging Bachelor of Playboy Mansion” that comes to mind, but rather “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
Hefner has managed to survive FBI and political scrutiny, critiques from all shades of feminism and religious institutions, and even six seasons cavorting with The Girls Next Door. Say what you will, but Hefner’s influence, both good and bad, will be around for a while.
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