The very first person you hear from in the thorough and informative documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist & Rebel is the gloriously creepy Gene Simmons of KISS. Gene kicks things off by maintaining that any American male alive “would give his left nut to be Hugh Hefner.” I object to this statement, if not the sentiment behind it. Personally, I’d consider giving up many things to have a life like Hugh Hefner’s, but certainly not my left nut. If I did that, then I’d have to repeatedly present only half the story to an endless parade of beautiful but less-than-brilliant blond women. You know they’d have questions. I know myself, and I’d get really tired of going over it. And besides, who would want my left nut in the first place, besides me (obviously) and an endless parade of beautiful blond women? Who exactly is brokering that trade? “Okay, you can have Hugh Hefner’s life, but I want THAT for my mantelpiece.” See what I mean? This is a cliché that never made much sense to me.
Anyway, I’m starting off with a little humor because generally speaking, that’s what this documentary is lacking. Outside of the occasional philosophy offered by Gene Simmons, who is at least as horrifying as he is humorous, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist & Rebel is generally a sober look at a life that has seen its fair share of comedy. I understand and respect the intention: Hugh Hefner is a man whose significant accomplishments are often dismissed or criticized or lampooned, and he deserves to be recognized more seriously. It’s just that at over two hours of running time, it’s possible that this could have been a little more of a party.
But if it has to err on the side of dryness, then at least Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist & Rebel is comprehensive in its cataloguing of the very real positive changes in American society to which Hugh Hefner has been a contributor. Of course, how you respond to that perspective depends on which side of the matter you support; Hugh Hefner’s life’s work has always been controversial. Playboy Magazine is his primary legacy, and it is the one thing with which his name will always find association. As a red-blooded American male, I admit that I’m one of those who revere Hefner for Playboy. I adore and respect women, and I do feel like I share many feminist beliefs, but I certainly don’t relate to the feminists who are quoted here, particularly Susan Brownmiller, who comes off as no fun at all. It can be argued that Playboy idealizes women, but I don’t believe it objectifies women, certainly not any more than professional sports objectifies men. And does Playboy idealize women that much more than movies and television do? In my opinion, you have to know when a fight is appropriate. If something is hateful, you fight it. If something is [arguably] in bad taste, you calm down and just avoid what offends you. It seems to me that you can absolutely love and respect women without despising Playboy, but somehow the two perspectives have historically always been in debate.
To its credit, this documentary gives plenty of voice to the dissenting opinion, although obviously its intent is to bolster Hefner’s historical, humanitarian, and socially-conscious profile. This much, at least, is very difficult to argue: Hefner was an early advocate of civil rights, and gave voice to blacklisted authors when no other outlet was open to them. For all of the feminist attacks on him in the 1970s, he supported abortion rights quite literally, with his pocketbook. He crusaded against the hypocrisy and the hatefulness of the religious right. He paid the legal fees of several unjustly imprisoned people who were unattended by mainstream media, and even managed to help see them freed. This is a man who has used his vast success to stand behind his beliefs, where so many other entrepreneurs seem contented to simply add to their wealth.
Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist & Rebel is an extensive, chronological, methodical chronicle of these and other events. It does a laudable job of explaining the merits of Hefner’s progressive role in society, and it always suggests the darker undercurrents of the story, even if it doesn’t dwell on any of them for too long. Hefner fans, Hefner detractors, and those who don’t even know the name will all find plenty of detailed education here, although of course the informed viewer might quibble over omissions. The truth is that two hours isn’t enough time to fully address this subject and all of the ensuing complications.
Personally, I would have been interested in hearing more about Hefner’s championing of cartoonists. An amateur cartoonist himself, Hefner always made this underrated art form a key component of Playboy’s identity, but outside of a small segment on magazine mainstay Gahan Wilson, there aren’t any cartoonists to be found. Hefner is also a jazz fan and a collector and a huge movie fan, as the Jack Pierce Mummy head in the opening credits suggests, and more of all of that would have livened up this documentary. I also would have been interested to hear some discussion about what has happened since – surely those who condemn Playboy as pornography are not aware of what else is out there. Playboy, to my eyes, is quite innocent, a light R rating compared to the triple-X imagery that is now just a mouse-click away. Also, it would have been nice to hear about Playboy’s effect on younger generations. The only person interviewed here under the age of fifty is Jenny McCarthy, and she seems concerned with other topics these days. Lastly, the documentary’s style is a fairly monotonous cavalcade of talking heads, archival footage, and still photographs – in a scene late in the movie you see footage of Hefner out and about in a nightclub, and it registers that this has generally been a static viewing experience.
But again, all of those are relatively small nits to pick when a documentary is so admirable in its goals and so effective in achieving them. Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist & Rebel is not the definitive word on its complicated subject, but it is one of the better attempts at capturing him in all his complicated selves. It leaves you wanting to learn more, which by definition makes it a successful documentary.
Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist & Rebel opens today, Friday July 30th in New York City at the Angelika Film Center.