Monday, December 6, 2010

On DVD: "Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel"

There are several different levels of admiration and/or disgust that one can feel about Hugh Hefner, often simultaneously. But the complexity of our feelings about the Playboy founder isn’t really on the table in Brigette Berman’s documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel, which is less an examination of Hefner than it is a celebration of him. Make no mistake, there are things about him worth celebrating, no matter where you stand on the magazine he is irrevocably tied to. But it’s a sliding scale, and for all of its virtues, the primary flaw of Berman’s film is that it sees him in black and white terms: you’re either with him or you’re against him.

Hefner’s story is certainly ripe for the documentary treatment—this isn’t his first time at the center of one, in fact. Berman doesn’t dwell too much on his early years; Hef is founding the magazine by the seven-minute mark, and the for the bulk of the film’s two-plus hours, he is exactly who we think of him as: the pajama-clad magazine publisher, the living embodiment of the Playboy ethos.

But the film is primarily interested in his participation in the changing mores of 20th century America, and his activism to that end. He was almost a Zelig figure, rubbing elbows with free thinkers, controversial entertainers, and up-and-coming writers. He used his print and television outlets as venues for the counterculture. He helped pay Lenny Bruce’s legal bills, put blacklisted writers and entertainers to work, and operated integrated Playboy Clubs in cities where that simply wasn’t done. His ubiquity was such that, when we find out he observed the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention, we’re barely surprised.

He was also reviled by (most) feminists and religious figures, who said that his magazine objectified women and promoted lust, promiscuity, and general bad taste. The film engages in that debate, thoughtfully and entertainingly—up to a point. The trouble is that the only counterpoint voices that are put into the mix are humorless feminist Susan Brownmiller, wingnut pop singer Pat Boone, and ultra-right wing radio host Dennis Prager. The message is clear: if you’re critical of Hefner, this is the company you keep. But surely there are more moderate (and intellectual) voices to be found, with more nuanced points to make? I like Playboy as much as the next guy, and find his accomplishments as a social activist quite admirable. But I can also acknowledge that the airbrushed, Photoshopped, sculpted body image that the magazine has made into the cultural ideal is damaging and dangerous—and also a direct contradiction to his original notion of showcasing women who were the “girl next door.” These aren’t the girls next door—unless you live next door to the Playboy Mansion. But that important point is brought up and then immediately tossed away; it’s not an argument the film wants to have, because there’s not an easy way to let Hef off the hook. (For whatever it’s worth, the interview subjects advocating for Hefner are less than ideal as well. Noted intellectual Jenny McCarthy? The loathsome, slimy Gene Simmons? Seriously?)

At 124 minutes, the picture is overlong and more than a little repetitive—by the end, it starts to feel like a puff piece. But it does engage and entertain; there is at least the beginning of a dialogue, and when it doesn’t stimulate the mind, it frequently tickles the funny bone (the story of how Hefner responded to the magazine’s removal from 7-Eleven stores by putting together a “Women of 7-Eleven” pictorial is priceless). There’s also a wealth of terrific material for Berman to draw from. Some of the best footage comes from Hefner’s own vintage TV shows, the syndicated Playboy’s Penthouse and Playboy After Dark, where he would “set the stage” for intellectuals and activists like Gore Vidal, Dr. David Reuben, Jim Brown, and Joan Baez to engage in thoughtful, pointed, sophisticated debates over important topics. It’s a shame that this documentary couldn’t have more closely followed that model.

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel is an energetic documentary and a fine time capsule, and is certainly a thorough profile of the fascinating man at its center. But the film’s stark, either/or take on Hefner’s influence on modern American society is a disservice to the tricky issues surrounding him and the empire he built.

"Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel" hits DVD on Tuesday, December 7th. For full A/V and bonus details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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