No Citizen Hef

There’s nothing especially wrong with Brigitte Berman‘s Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel (Metaphor, 7.30) except that it’s (a) a half-hour too long, (b) utterly lacking in dramatic judgment, and (c) way too obsequious. It feels or plays like a Playboy-commissioned blowjob documentary intended to glorify Hefner’s rep (which it does) but which is mainly or currently intended for viewing by stockholders and potential investors.

The intent was solely to catalogue and promote Hefner as a cultural revolutionary (whch he absolutely was in the ’50s and ’60s) and a steadfast advocate of various liberal causes (sexual freedom, opposition to racism and Vietnam War, marijuana use, etc.) over the last 55-plus years. Which it does. And which is fine. Hefner deserves to take a bow for this. He absolutely did stand up and open a lot of doors and take stands against some very ugly and repressive things in our culture.

But the doc is too admiring to be interesting. And it doesn’t acknowledge the obvious, which is that while Playboy, the high-toned, politically liberal men’s skin magazine that Hefner launched in 1953 and which still thrives (or has at least survived) today, was on the barricades of the sexual revolution in the ’50s and ’60s, it gradually became a symbol of female repression and sexist old-fartism in the ’80s and beyond.

The main issue for me is that Berman fails to provide a sense of drama by refusing to tell Hefner’s story in a way that delivers an up-and-down arc, which all lives have. In broad strokes the stories of successful power-trippers are all the same. There’s always the hunger, the struggle, the rise, the success, the glories, the cresting and then the gradual fall-off. Orson Welles knew this when he filmed the fictionalized story of William Randolph Hearst, but Berman refuses to even consider it in her story of Hugh M. Hefner. Gradual decline, decreasing importance, creeping irrelevancy…what?

Playboy peaked in terms of cultural and political vitality from the mid to late ’50s through (maybe) the mid ’70s. But it gradually lost its edge due to (a) various competitors (which the doc completely ignores) stealing the sexual pizazz factor, (b) the culture having embraced much of the hedonistic philosophy that Hefner and his Playboy philosophy advocated, (c) the women’s movement exposing its repressive aspects, and (d) internet porn. To watch Berman’s doc you’d think that nothing ever changed except for the fact that Hefner got older but wiser, and the Playboy empire just kept movin’ and groovin’ on.

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel is a nicely done doc for what it is. It’s kinda fun to get on the train and take the sexual history trip and watch all the cool old footage. But I would have felt rooked if I’d paid to see this. Berman is just not interested in drilling all that deeply; she just doesn’t try that hard. She doesn’t even mention the Hefner musical that went into screenplay form that almost…well, could have gotten made but died on the vine.