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Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel (2009)

by on 2013/09/16

Hugh Hefner (2009)

“Who I am is, as I’ve said before, an open book with illustrations, but how one interprets those illustrations is very much an ink blot or Rorschach test of someone else’s values.”

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The first – and to date only – Playboy magazine I have ever bought was in January, 1997. I believe I kept the purchase a secret from everyone I knew. I couldn’t tell you who was on the cover, or in the centerfold. I bought it for Raymond Benson’s James Bond story, “Blast from the Past”, a sequel of sorts to Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice.

I suppose it would be politically correct for me to pretend Playboy’s unfamiliar because I have too much respect for ladies to appreciate them solely on the basis of their naked bodies. The truth is, to that young man, it just seemed too damn full of articles.

While the documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel does acknowledge (and show) nude women, it seems more focused on exploring the less obvious sides of its subject. Its structure, overall, is chronological, beginning with Hefner’s biography, his origins, his early life, and interests in publishing. After he founds Playboy he becomes the exemplar for the lifestyle it espouses, promoting jazz festivals, television series, and a chain of urban nightspots.

But what seems straightforward at first gets tangled up with sociopolitical issues. The festivals and TV shows promote black artists to the ire of some people. The clubs, likewise, find conflict against the old world laws of the south. And the Seventies see Hefner’s shows becoming a left-leaning platform.

A couple of therapist friends once told me about a condition common to children of alcoholics, one which has them building a life, then destroying it to start again. I can’t speak for Hefner’s parents, but he seemed to be testing his luck constantly. If there were any causes to support and bring on the wrath of extreme adherents, he gravitated to them, especially if they helped underdogs or free speech.

He fought cultural, state, and religious norms, racists, blacklisters, war supporters and, not surprisingly, a subset of feminists. He’s supported sexual freedom, abortion, birth control, marijuana, adoption, and film preservation. In response to his unpopular (ahead of his time) causes, he’s been pursued by the law for obscenity, drugs, and alleged tax issues.

The speakers interviewed here are numerous, almost all are recognizable: activists, authors, entertainers, political figures, and more. To the documentary’s credit, however, it’s not stacked with sycophants. Some of those interviewed even have unflattering things to say, have mixed feelings, or are overtly critical. For example, broadcaster Mike Wallace disapproves of the nudity, but respects Hefner’s ground-breaking racial politics. “Close” acquaintances characterize him as distant, preoccupied, and fussy, a teetotaler consumed by editing.

I’m not entirely certain if I’m leaning one way or the other. I credit my neutrality to the filmmaker’s sense of balance. If “Hef” has his share of flaws, then he has redeeming qualities too. Or perhaps there is no good or bad; all his interests derive from shared roots. One of the participants refers to it as the schizophrenia of Playboy, an incongruous juxtaposition of nudity and intellectualism. Which pretty much sums up the wild and wonderful appeal of Hugh Hefner.

So I guess there’s more to Playboy than just James Bond stories.

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Rated 14A

124 minutes

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