Sure, he’s built an empire as a softcore pornographer. And in recent years has made a caricature of himself, known more for being the dirty old man with multiple girlfriends than for the chestnut of a magazine he founded. But even those who object to Playboy may find themselves admiring the Hef in Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, Brigitte Berman’s documentary about sides of the 84-year-old (!) former Esquire copywriter that few likely know about.
It’s a fascinating watch about a fascinating—and impossibly lucid—man. Here Hefner recollects his past—most significantly the first Playboy issue in 1953, whose cover featured a much-tittered-about but previously modesty-modified nude of Marilyn Monroe. It wasn’t long before this psychology major and cartoonist (much of his work is featured here) had a popular publication on his hands—even Pat Boone admits to once being “drawn into seduction of it.” And it was buoyed by fine prose, both fiction and non-, that helped the magazine argue its respectability. Its in-depth interviews became notable, with profiles of larger-than-life figures from Miles Davis to Martin Luther King, Jr. Those two, in particular, were penned by Alex Haley (who later went on to write Roots: The Saga of an American Family).
Hefner’s lack of prejudice during a time when African-Americans and homosexuals were second-class citizens is remarkable. The articles he chose—and still edits—reflected his open mind about race, sexuality, contraception, and marijuana reform. But it was Hefner’s television shows, Playboy’s Penthouse and Playboy After Dark, that brought his thoughts to the masses. They also busted a ceiling: Penthouse was the first national program to feature both black and white entertainers. The shows, set up like parties, had guests like Pete Seeger, Sammy Davis, Jr., and controversial comedian Lenny Bruce, the last of whom Hefner encouraged to speak about then-taboo topics. Even after they went off the air, the eventually infamous Playboy gatherings at both his Chicago and Los Angeles mansions involved not just T&A but thoughtful conversation about important subjects, which baffled but also won over guests like Joan Baez.
Baez is interviewed here, along with Dick Gregory, Mike Wallace, Jenny McCarthy, George Lucas, Tony Bennett, and other Hef supporters. Among the dissenting voices is feminist and author Susan Brownmiller, who once challenged Hefner on The Dick Cavett Show and still insists that “Playboy did not speak to women. Playboy used women.” Of course, Hef argues free speech and that he intended only to loosen up our puritanical society and convey that “nice girls liked sex, too.” Yet the young Hef’s ambition wasn’t fueled by prurient interests so much as a desire to avoid his parents’ stagnant domestic life, of which he asked himself: “Is that all there is?” If you think all there is to Hugh Hefner is a smoking jacket and a posse of blondes, this film will likewise strip that assumption.