Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel stands as a corrective to the caricature currently on display courtesy of the E! network. The ageless playboy’s life is far more interesting than what you see on his reality show The Girls Next Door. Hefner played an active role in the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and changing the culture at large, all of which is captured with vigor in this entertaining bio-doc.
Yet those who prefer he hadn’t had such influence get little attention here. Hefner is a glowing biopic, one so enamored with its subject matter that it turns even his peculiar social life into a positive. Who knew living with multiple girlfriends was a sign of having a big ol’ heart?
Hefner began as a circulation manager at a kiddie magazine, but he wanted to create a publication that would speak to the modern man — or the man he hoped to be. The name Stag Party sparked a brief legal hiccup, so Hefner settled on Playboy as the magazine’s soon-to-be-iconic name. He found quick success despite the sexually repressed mindset of the 1950s. He used his newfound clout to start up his own television show, Playboy’s Penthouse, and created other offshoot projects like nightclubs and jazz festivals.
Along the way he ran through cultural walls regarding sexuality, race relations, and birth control. He embraced black comics before the mainstream did, and used his nightclubs as race-neutral centers for adults to kick back and relax.
Hefner himself is interviewed throughout the documentary, narrating his life story with a combination of wonder and self-admiration. Watching him turn the pages of his personal scrapbook shows he cares about historical markers as much as Playmate bra sizes.
We get precious little on Hefner’s formative years, though.
“He didn’t get hugged enough,” opines Star Wars creator George Lucas, one of many Hefner chums making an appearance. Hef’s massive coterie of famous friends and supporters, from Jim Brown to Tony Bennett, do fill in some blanks. Others, like James Caan, seem forever grateful to Hefner for assembling so many gorgeous woman in one place — the Playboy Mansion.
The film trots out a few feminists to complain about Playboy Nation, but they seem overmatched — or realize Hefner long ago won the cultural wars. Radio talk show host Dennis Prager appears to tut-tut the benefits of Hefner’s sexual revolution, but the moments are so brief as to be insulting to Prager and anyone who might agree with him. It’s hard to believe the filmmakers couldn’t find a few ex-Playmates or gal pals with unkind comments to make about the man known simply as Hef. The segments involving his multiple marriages would have to get much tougher to rise to the level of the “softball” treatment.