Film Review: Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

Teeming with commentary from well-known celebrities, this exceptional doc about Hugh Hefner and the ascent of liberalism celebrates both the iconic <i>Playboy </i>founder and the receding of taboos and prejudice over the past half-century.

What fascinates most in Oscar-winning filmmaker Brigitte Berman’s slick and sublime Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel is the reminder (or news to many) that the publishing magnate and lifestyle revolutionary was every bit as much activist, rebel and reformer as he was playboy. This lively documentary, which conveys the magnitude of change Hefner inspired, will rivet viewers of every age and persuasion who value human rights, respect for human nature, and the unexpected from human genius.

As an important and effective liberal progressive, Hefner abetted the civil-rights movement and helped emancipate women from their circumscribed roles—so graphically etched in ’50s/early-’60s pop culture—of housebound wife and mother. A revolutionary in the realm of ideas, he fought the right-wing forces of anti-Communism and fundamentalist Christianity, intolerance, sexual repression and hypocrisy. And he had a very good time doing it.

Sure, women’s-lib leaders like Gloria Steinem and Susan Brownmiller weren’t Hef fans, as the doc makes clear. The Playboy bunnies (Steinem went underground as one of them), whether in print or on-site at the mansion, might have been victims of their illusions but certainly not of any kind of coercion or sex trafficking.

Media titan Hefner, who shed some very thick Puritanical skin as an Illinois WASP, helped many in his inner and outer circles and in the country at large. These circles included some of the country’s smartest celebs, artists and activists who, thanks to Hefner, helped forge a more tolerant, honest, less hypocritical world.

The film follows Hefner from his early years as working drone to his break from conventional life (and marriage) and founding in 1953 of Playboy magazine, which he grew into a global empire and force for change. The magazine, propelled by the infamous Marilyn Monroe cover, begot star-packed, Hef-hosted TV variety shows (“Playboy After Dark,” “Playboy’s Penthouse”), the wildly popular Playboy clubs and mansions and huge Playboy Foundation. As the franchise exploded, the magazine grew in importance and seriousness; bunnies shared pages with in-depth interviews with some of the most important thinkers and shakers of the past 40 years.

While his image is imbedded in collective minds as a pipe-smoking, decadent, robe-donning swinging Don Juan in heaven, Hefner is on the battlefront, fighting for civil and gay rights, First Amendment rights and for a sexual revolution that will reflect what men and women of all orientations need and deserve.

His enemies are the religious and political right, the latter embodied by Nixon, Reagan and J. Edgar Hoover. Also across the barricades are religious fundamentalists, anti-porn activists and militant feminists who deem Playboy bunnies as traitors and symbols of an exploitative Playboy philosophy.

An endless stream of famous personalities pass through this doc, many as talking heads, others by way of an abundance of archival footage from Hefner’s old TV shows, Dick Cavett and William F. Buckley interviews, etc. To cite just a few, the film is a rich collection of Hefner allies (Mike Wallace is a convert), rock and jazz greats (Tony Bennett, Buddy Rich, Sammy Davis, Jr., Gene Simmons), anti-war and civil-rights activists (Joan Baez, Jim Brown, Rev. Jesse Jackson), anti-Playboy combatants (Pat Boone, Charles Keating, Steinem and Brownmiller), and intellectual-provocateurs (Buckley, Gore Vidal). And then there are the boys who just wanna have fun (James Caan, David Steinberg, Tony Curtis). Hefner’s mansion gave them just that.

Hefner, whose magazine and wealth fought the bullies, began by betting big on male lust and used the windfall to back the big causes. Berman’s film, a picture of effective, unexpected liberal activism, perhaps inadvertently asks where would this country be now without Hugh Hefner and begs the question: Where can we get another one?