There are few people who can be credited with affecting real or lasting change in our culture. One of them is Hugh Hefner, an aspiring cartoonist who borrowed money to put out the first issue of a magazine called Playboy that became an overnight sensation back in the uptight 1950s. Hef became a celebrity, and used his success to promote his ideas and ideals; that’s the focus of Oscar-winning filmmaker Brigitte Berman’s new documentary, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel.
Some critics have scoffed at the very idea of a serious film about Hefner, but Berman does take him seriously, and has the material to back her up, in archival footage and interviews with some of the editor-publisher’s admirers, ranging from Jesse Jackson to George Lucas.
In the film, Kiss’ Gene Simmons talks about the image most people have of Hef, a man who lived the fantasy lifestyle his magazine espoused. In the 1970s, feminists attacked him for objectifying women—but not all women felt that way. Former Playmate—
—Jenny McCarthy actually sings his praises onscreen.
And while he never set out to be a crusader, he became one—for freedom of speech, when the post office tried to stop him from sending his magazine through the mail, and for broader, more basic freedoms as well.
When he launched his TV show Playboy’s Penthouse, he booked guests without regard for race—and since he wasn’t on a network, no one could censor him. He presented more black jazz musicians, entertainers, and comedians (like Dick Gregory, who appears in the documentary) than anyone else on TV with the possible exception of Ed Sullivan.
It’s Hefner’s refusal to buckle under pressure, or surrender his beliefs, that provides this documentary its most provocative and surprising material. And the archival clips are simply fascinating. For people who only think of Hefner as a connoisseur of female beauty, Berman’s film will be a real eye-opener.