DVD: Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel (2009)

February 4, 2011 | By

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Film: Very Good / DVD Transfer: Excellent

Label: Phase 4 Films / Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: December 7, 2010

Genre: Documentary

Synopsis: Lengthy chronicle of the rise of Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner.

Special Features: Trailer

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Review:

Brigitte Berman’s lengthy documentary of Playboy publisher and erotic magazine pioneer Hugh Hefner attempts to examine his role as smut peddler and civil rights crusader, but in spite of the huge wealth of images, archival film and video clips and interviews, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel was modeled with a pro-Hefner stance, which kind of makes it rather fawning, if not propagandistic.

It is surprising that behind the leisure-robed libertine lies an assertive, sharp-minded man who fought the U.S. Postal Service for denying delivery of the magazine due to its erotic content (a battle he won for the benefit of all publishers), hired blacklisted and liberal artists to perform on his syndicated TV series, integrated black artists with white guests on TV in a segregated America, and fought to make sex fun rather than a dirty little secret.

Feminist Susan Brownmiller rightly cites the blurring line between Hef’s civic efforts and just good business sense, but Berman does shore up the publisher as being genuinely irked when confronted with social injustice (or maybe societal stupidity) because hating a person because of colour, for example, runs contrary to his personality as a liberal and libertine.

Gospel singer Pat Boone also chimes in his anti-pornography views, but his black & white regard for erotica as being straight porn weakens his credibility as an anti-Hef proponent, and makes Boone a rather annoying figure among the two critics in Berman’s doc. TV journalist Mike Wallace confesses to disliking Hef from the onset, but over time he developed a softer respect for the publisher who blended two extremes between the covers of  Playboy magazine: literature and frank erotic photo spreads featuring ‘the girl next door.’

The lack of more anti-Hef views turns Brownmiller into a broken record whiner in spite of her salient points, but perhaps that’s the trouble with Hef as a whole: there is no ambiguity to his product and persona, and he just doesn’t care what people think; his shoulder shrugging, consistent in his interviews, negates Berman’s anti-Hef subjects, and pretty much guarantees his ideology will dominate and ultimately shape the doc’s slant as a pro-Hef feature instead of a careful and prickly examination.

The only sharp moment that stands out has Brownmiller chastising Hef on a talk show, snapping brilliantly ‘How would you like to walk around in a bunny tail?’ Completely ignored from the doc are the bunnies themselves, and the absurd criteria that ‘made’ a bunny, not to mention the behaviour and deference waitresses had to show, such as the specific tilt in which bunnies had to serve and refresh drinks.

The other factor, when viewed through the spectacles of the woman-loving (sexist) male, is Hef isn’t perceived as a bad guy, so Berman’s doc carries the views already shared by his supporters and connoisseurs of his products – either the brand name of Playboy, the bunny-tailed babes, or what the magazine initially espoused to be, in terms of blending art from sexual and moral extremes.

The version shown at TIFF reportedly ran 11 mins. longer, but Berman’s pruning had to leave a fair chunk of material because of Hef’s lengthy career and exploits. Perhaps the early years as a publisher are the strongest, because it gathers together his influences, aspects that developed his libertine persona, and the creativity that went into making Playboy’s rise meteoric during the fifties.

Although many name writers appeared in Playboy, it’s surprising to hear Charles Beaumont mentioned because he’s a largely forgotten figure in U.S. literature, having written essays and stories for the magazine before writing feature films (the ill-fated dud Queen of Outer Space) and reaching a career apex with his scripts for The Twilight Zone. Beaumont’s other major work, the anti-racist novel The Intruder, was made into a striking film by Roger Corman in 1962. One can see why the author flourished in the pages of Playboy.

Berman manages to give attention to the mag’s key development – the articles, the cartoons, essays, interviews, and art design which influenced the next wave of slick magazines and male-oriented publications – and the empire that Hef built, spanning TV, a jet plane (dubbed ‘the big bunny’), and his move from Chicago to California, where he set up the Playboy mansion. There’s also a potent chapter on the Meese Commission’s efforts to destroy the mag, and ultimately relent after their persecution of Hef’s assistant led her to commit suicide.

His marriages are given some attention, but without any comments from ex-wife Barbi Benton, his memories of their failed marriage is one-sided. Shannon Tweed provides some insight into Hef’s comfort with multiple partners, but her decision to extricate herself from a threesome relationship illustrates why he’s developed into a sleek male pig, flanked by beautiful women a quarter his age, and a giant home office that keeps him mentally and erotically charged on the hour.

Flaws aside, Berman’s doc is a grand multimedia chronology with some great music, amusing interviews, and some unlikely supporters (to hear George Lucas chime in his own views is particularly goofy).

Phase 4 Films’ DVD is a bare bones release, but it offers a sharp transfer of this production wholly funded and produced in Canada.

One unanswered that could’ve been addressed in a director interview is why’d it take a Canadian to tackle an American icon. Brigitte Berman’s other films include the Oscar-winning doc Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got (1985).

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© 2011 Mark R. Hasan

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Related external links (MAIN SITE):

DVD / Film: Intruder, The (1962) —   Queen of Outer Space (1958)

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External References:

IMDB Official Website

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Buy from:

Amazon.comHugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

Amazon.caHugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

Amazon.co.uk – Hugh Hefner: Playboy Activist & Rebel [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]

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