Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Film Review | Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

Hugh Hefner Superstar

by Thomas Delapa

Celebrities, here’s a tip worthy of the Playboy Advisor: If you consent to a documentary biography, make sure you hire a pal to direct.

After making Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, the only remaining to-do items for director Brigitte Berman is to nominate her subject for the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and, in time, canonization. P.S., if you read the press-book fine print, you’ll discover that Berman and Hef have been friends for years.

While an Oscar-winning filmmaker in her own right (Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got), Berman doesn’t exactly pursue the naked truths behind her controversial and paradoxical subject, despite being granted unique access to Hefner’s voluminous personal archives. The portrait that emerges is less a sharp profile than a glossy, R-rated edition of This Is Your Life, complete with a gallery of genuflecting testimonials.

That’s a shame, because Berman uncovers lively facts and footage that focus on Hefner’s part-time career as liberal-minded social activist. While undoubtedly most famous (or infamous) as the founder/editor of the first mainstream nudie magazine, Hefner can also be credited for his work—however opportunistic—on such landmark 1950s and 1960s causes as racial integration, free speech, and anti-McCarthyism. Only in recent years has it come to light that Hefner’s activism merited the snooping surveillance of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI during the tumultuous Vietnam-War era.

Lounging in his familiar red smoking jacket, Hefner makes his case in earnest, and Berman, all ears, hops to it. A parade of impressive guests, from Jesse Jackson and Dick Cavett to Tony Bennett and Bill Maher, toast Hefner’s guts, integrity, and courage under fire. Playboy mansion regular James Caan commends his taste in women. If there’s not enough hot air, we’re treated (seriously) to several stirring refrains of “Blowin in the Wind.”

Backed up by eye-opening vintage footage, Berman isn’t all bluster. On Hefner’s short-lived, hipster TV shows, syndicated in the 1950s and 1960s, we see a racially mixed gathering of guests, including Sammy Davis Jr. and blacklisted folk singer Peter Seeger; as well as the controversial “sick” comic Lenny Bruce. Hefner’s 1960s swingin’ Playboy Clubs were among the first to feature black comics, such as Chicago’s Dick Gregory. And in the earliest of Playboy’s landmark interview pieces ( “It set the standard,” says Hef ), a pre-Roots Alex Haley talked at length with jazz legend Miles Davis.

For token counterpoint, feminist Susan Brownmiller chimes in, along with singer and social conservative Pat Boone. Brownmiller dismisses Hefner’s activism (and literary pretensions) as a clever, self-serving ruse to dress up and legitimize “soft” pornography that thrives on the objectification of women. At bottom, Playboy is essentially a purveyor of male sexual fantasy, and arguably has helped open the floodgates for today’s multi-billion-dollar porn industry. While Hefner rather disingenuously declares his original intent was to show that “female beauty was everywhere”, Brownmiller argues that Playboy’s 57 years of photographic spreads create the voyeuristic and sexist fantasy that “the girl next door will take her clothes off for you.” Of course, in Hefner’s case, it was no fantasy.

For another unlikely defender, Berman beams up director George Lucas, who un-Forcefully claims that Star Wars isn’t so different from Playboy’s layouts of bare naked young ladies with come-hither expressions. “I create fantasy; Hef creates fantasy,” says the creator of Han Solo and Jar Jar Binks.

Apart from a smattering of discouraging words, there are few cracks exposed in Berman’s Mt. Rushmore-lofty tribute. We hear only scant stories from the thousands of women who’ve disrobed for Playboy. In this top-heavy chronicle, Berman brings us up to date with Hefner in his eighties, sans pipe and wives, but still surrounded by a bevy of busty 20-something blondes.

In the age of Viagra, what 84-year-old millionaire playboy needs the fountain of youth?

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel
is currently playing in select theaters in the U.S. and Canada.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 8/26/10

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