Hugh Hefner, America’s most celebrated and legendary pornographer, has less and less reason to celebrate. His Playboy magazine empire is crumbling — he may even be bought out by competitors — and his prototypical leering pose with girls young enough to be his great-granddaughters is now just plain creepy. His 2009 Christmas card featured 83-year-old Hefner standing between two 20-year-old twins who are his newest live-in girlfriends. Each was wearing a pink tank top with “Hef” painted on it in white. Hefner’s women are forever the plastic toys under his tree.
Into this sad picture comes documentary filmmaker Brigitte Berman with a gushy new two-hour infomercial titled “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel.” How gushy is it? Washington Post critic Michael O’Sullivan found “the Hugh Hefner in this movie is Thomas Paine, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi and William Kunstler all rolled into one.”
In fact, Berman is so in love with her subject’s cultural and political influence, she told one interviewer that when the news came out that Martin Luther King Jr. had cheated on his wife, Coretta, “that never affected ‘I have a dream,’ so I found it really curious” that Hefner couldn’t be seen more as a civil rights hero and less as a seedy porn king.
In the film, Hefner is obsequiously compared to King. Newsman Mike Wallace suggests he paved the way for President Obama, and all that hope and change. Bill Maher even compares him with Jackie Robinson, as the pioneer who took all the arrows. Trying to compare breaking the color line in baseball with being the first to publish the comic strip “Little Annie Fanny” is a bit of a historical stretch.
Hefner is so full of himself that he’s made piles and piles of now-yellowed scrapbooks of his career. Most of the film is Hefner paging through his scrapbooks, dictating to his smitten documentarian how he wants his legacy defined. This film really looks like Hefner puffing up his own reputation before he loses his power to define it — a last shill and testament. There is, in its long, fawning two-hour parade, some tiny breaks for conservatives Dennis Prager and Pat Boone to get a few words in edgewise, but that’s wiped out by the sugar high Hefner’s giving himself in this film.
This man even wants to deny that he fits the term “pornographer.” The dictionary defines pornography as “the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement.” Boone declares of Hefner that “of course, he’s been a pornographer from the beginning.” That is true, and commonsensical — but in this film, also somehow a controversial assertion, an assertion set up for a rebuttal, of sorts.
Actor James Caan rebuts — the way a Playboy defender knows best — by saying there were always a lot of beautiful girls at the Playboy mansion.
Debating really isn’t their strong suit. Just pushing the sex is.
Hefner wants to be known not simply as the nation’s Sherpa to Shangri-La, but as the intellectual exponent of “The Playboy Philosophy,” which one of his toadies insists was an incredibly popular part of the magazine. Tony Bennett also lunges to the laughable conclusion that men read the deep and literary articles after achieving sexual satisfaction. In other words, that the centerfolds were the foreplay to an evening of higher education.
This notion of Hefner as self-delusional sage is exposed in a brief clip from a 1966 interview with William F. Buckley on “Firing Line.” While Buckley calmly declares Hefner’s out to “annul” the moral code, Hefner attempts to claim he was not rejecting or attacking monogamy, which is quite simply lying. In his own life, Hefner quickly set aside his wife and daughter so he could begin his career in corrupting the souls of America.
He has been an enormously influential man. As Boone says in the film, he did the most to entrench the maxim “If it feels good, do it” — no matter what the wreckage.
The filmmaker loses her spell of adoration only once, where a 1979 centerfold siren, Vicki Iovine, discusses how Hefner was “cute” in love, but it was always an “adolescent” love that didn’t last. Love has eluded him, except as this film repeatedly reminds us, his own deep self-love.
Hefner no doubt ends where the film begins, with the tribute of Gene Simmons, leader of the silly ’70s rock band KISS, who insists any man would give his left testicle to live the life of Hugh Hefner, at age 20, age 50 or age 80. But Hefner at 84 is just a dirty old man living out a threadbare satin cliche. The Washington Post critic granted him his liberal bona fides, but also found the sadness in “this Peter Pan with Viagra who never grew up.”