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A undated handout photo of Hugh Hefner

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2 out of 4 stars


Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, Rebel

  • Directed by Brigitte Berman

Canadian director Brigitte Berman won an Oscar back in 1985 for her documentary Artie Shaw: Time is All You've Got, about the jazz musician, ladies' man and political outcast. Her new documentary looks at another American who rebelled against mid-century repression, Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner.

As the film's title - Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel - indicates, the film takes the unorthodox position of seeing the infamous marketer of soft-core porn as a cultural hero. Specifically, Berman's film looks at how the political right-wing in the United States is closely linked to anti-sexual and racial hysteria, and how Hefner, by helping normalize talk about sex, has had a net positive social impact.

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As well as promoting jazz music and African-American entertainers, he put Playboy's resources into fighting excessively punitive laws against sex and drug infractions. Using an extended interview with Hefner and access to his life-long scrapbooks, the film tells a history of Playboy's battles with censors and prejudice, a record of do-gooding often at odds with the publication's hedonistic reputation. In one surreal bit of footage, we see Playboy bunnies on board Hefner's private jet cuddling baby Vietnamese orphans as they are flown to new homes in the United States.

A re-evaluation of Hefner's role in post-war America is a rich subject, and Berman's perspective is, at least initially, bold and revealing. A classic American entrepreneur, Hefner, at 27, cobbled together borrowed money to start his magazine. When he adopted the rabbit icon (the adult answer to Disney's mouse) and managed to buy a picture of the emerging - and naked - sex symbol Marilyn Monroe as the mag's first centrefold in December 1953, he was on his way.

Twenty years later, the publication was selling as many as seven million copies a month (nowadays it's down to about 2.6 million). Playboy was smut you could feel smug about: The magazine was an important outlet for quality writers (Ray Bradbury, John Updike, Norman Mailer) and in-depth interviews with authors, celebrities and politicians, wrapped around the D-cups. As Tony Bennett says of the magazine's readers: "When they got past masturbating, they sort of read more."

Berman's documentary, unfortunately, also reveals how people fawn over the wealthy and influential. We learn, for example, that Hefner is both a "selfless humanitarian" and a "deep thinker." In fairness, Berman includes a few critics, most notably Christian activist and singer Pat Boone and feminist academic Susan Brownmiller. But their criticisms seem more for the record than to serious refute Hefner's sexual-liberation platitudes.

Otherwise, the documentary seems to be skirting around the edges of something more central. Playboy's success may owe something to Hef's vision and philanthropy, but surely it's also about the cultural impact of big, bare breasts. In the 1950s, religious activists condemned Playboy for undermining the social fabric. In the 1970s, it wasn't uncommon for feminists to equate even soft-core pornography with hate literature. Yet since the late Seventies, as Playboy's popularity began to wane, women's studies have made pornography a respectable subject of academic study, often precisely because of its subversive nature.

By the end, Berman's film drifts off into a series of accolades for the now-84-year-old publisher. At its best, Berman's film makes you reconsider Hefner's weird legacy, his replaceable, cyborg-like Playmates and the erotic scenarios that involve "girls next door" who are constantly being surprised while disrobing or masturbating on the sofa.

That's not to forget Hef's answer to Disneyworld, the mansion, where middle-aged male celebrities can have a "relationship for a weekend" (as Tony Curtis puts it) with a young woman built like a pre-Columbian fertility goddess and named after one of the months of the year.

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The title - Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel - is fine as far as it goes. But if you leave out "octogenarian mammophile" and "calendar fetishist," you leave something essential out of the story.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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