The documentary does show a side of Hefner we rarely see in the media. It’s hard not to get emotionally involved when you see Hefner lend out his private jet to bring abandoned Vietnamese babies out of that war-ravaged country, or how he ignored skin color when assembling his various shows and live events.
But what about the Playboy image, that of the corn-fed blonde bombshell who helped define the beauty standards then … and now? Isn’t that worth critiquing in some capacity?
Such omissions are assuaged by giddy moments like watching a young Sammy Davis Jr. yuk it up on one of Hefner’s broadcast programs. And it’s a riot to hear Hefner sit back and let liberal guests spout gloom and doom predictions about the world circa the Summer of Love. Years later, the Earth is just fine, thank you, despite their warnings.
Still, it’s a shame director Brigitte Berman didn’t force Hefner to answer his critics directly. He’s a smart, well-spoken fellow who can be quite articulate in his own defense.
We do see glimpses of Hefner’s darker side. Colleagues complain that he used medically approved drugs to keep him working all hours, and he was often surly when the pills’ effect wore off.
It’s hard to assess just how much Hefner affected society. His friends offer anecdotal evidence, and it’s clear we live in a much more sexually permissive country. But a smarter documentary would have leaned on more sources beyond Hefner to find the answers.
Mike Wallace encapsulated what made Hefner different than other liberal warriors. “He was not a protester or a loudmouth,” says Wallace, and he’s right. Hefner conducted himself with class through the decades, even if his magazine offered classless peeks at big-breasted women.
Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel didn’t have to cuddle up to its subject matter to tell an engrossing story. Hefner’s life is a shining example of the American dream in action, even if for socially conservative Americans his dream remains a nightmare.