Activist and Rebel
- Rated R
Reviewed by Jason Newman
owards the end of “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel,” a fawning documentary about the life of the renowned Playboy magazine founder, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer encapsulates the two-hour film in one sentence. "They don't think about the free speech," she says. “They think about the seven women.” It's an accurate description of society's image of the 84-year-old icon: a libertine devoted solely to tending to his coterie of girlfriends. Director Brigitte Berman (“Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got”) aims to change that perception with a film that focuses less on Hef the Hedonist and more on his role as perennial champion of civil rights and humanitarian causes.
Both through his iconoclastic magazine and fantastical, decadent lifestyle, Hefner has become a role model and idol to millions of men. “What man wouldn't give his left nut,” opines fellow hedonist Gene Simmons, “to be Hugh Hefner?” Testicular surrendering aside, it's easy to see the appeal of a life, albeit a shallow one, spent in your pajamas surrounded by the most beautiful women in the world.
While Berman includes multiple examples of the (in)famous “Hef Lifestyle,” the other, lesser known side takes up the bulk of the film's running time. When the House Un-American Activities Committee began investigating notable Americans for potential Communist affiliations, Hefner hired blacklisted writers to pen stories for the mag. When the New Orleans Playboy Club, citing Louisiana law, denied entry to black members in the 1960s, Hef the Humanitarian repurchased the club to allow everyone in. As the movie deftly shows, Hefner embraced cultural pariahs and the underdog, counting himself among those groups.
With limitless pictures of naked women available to anyone with a computer in seconds, it's hard to overstate the impact Playboy had when its inaugural issue – boasting Marilyn Monroe on the cover – appeared in 1953. As the circulation numbers grew with each subsequent issue, so too did Playboy's influence and redefining of previously ironclad cultural norms and social mores. The critics were many, but as writer David Steinberg points out in the film, “In a repressed environment, anyone who has open, free thought and new ideas is dangerous.” (Watch in hypocritical glee as a young Charles Keating claims that Playboy is “an evil almost as bad as socialism” years before the Savings and Loan scandal put him in jail for nearly five years.)
But if you believe everything about “Hefner,” our titular hero is an immortal savior worthy of deification whose place in the cultural pantheon affords him sainthood status.
Critics of Playboy – and there are many – are given the opportunity to air out their grievances, but oftentimes the counterargument seems like filler, as if Berman realized she had to haphazardly throw in plausible arguments about female objectification to avoid criticism. We could've benefited from a few more valid arguments against Hef and a few less stories from James Caan (there's plenty to go around).
Still, “Hefner” does correct the often overlooked compassionate and charitable side of the publisher and icon; one that is as important to his legacy as his grotto parties or interchangeable blondes, even if it's not as sexy a story.