REVIEW: Hugh Hefner Proves Friends Shouldn't Let Friends Make Vanity Docs
Director Brigitte Berman opens Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, her hydroponically grown laurel for the Playboy kingpin's commemorative bust, with two irrelevant blowhards -- Gene Simmons and Jenny McCarthy -- outdoing themselves. Simmons, who is called back into the film whenever the level of deterministic horseshit runs low, proclaims that there is not a single man -- of any age or in any period of human history -- who would not essentially sacrifice his manhood (I believe "left nut" is the phrase) to be Hugh Hefner.
The statement is both hair-raisingly stupid (and no less specious than assuming all women want to pose for his magazine) and the closest the film gets -- for all of its earnest record-straightening -- to paying tribute to Hefner's legacy: It was not only women who were affected by the mainstreaming of an overtly sexual feminine ideal; men were bound to obey and accept it as well. Like any good hustler, he told men what they wanted, and what they wanted was to be like him, to want what he wanted. Pretty soon it became a moot point which came first -- the neatly packaged, highly constrained sexual ideal or men's desire for more of it. We don't need to give our collective left nut to be Hugh Hefner; we are Hugh Hefner.
A product of a very specific time and place and seriously enduring repressions, Hefner seems to have been reacting -- publicly, influentially -- to the first 20 years of his life for the last 64. But we learn almost nothing of his youth, except that it led almost directly to a bad, short-lived marriage (neither of his ex-wives is interviewed). In the early 1950s he became devoted to the idea of promoting a "healthier attitude" toward sex in a generally repressed culture. For Hefner this meant openly objectifying women within a strict set of parameters; the rigidity of the era was matched by that of his depiction of female sexuality. Fifty years later McCarthy rhapsodizes about the "ungroomed" individuality that made her a Playmate of the Year while photos of her looking lacquered in blonde, boobed-up Playboy drag pass by.
A fledgling writer, cartoonist, and legal analyst, Hefner, in 1953, became his own entire masthead, and for the first issue of Playboy pulled what is looked back on by several people in the documentary as a genius move: Humiliating Marilyn Monroe at the height of her stardom by finding and publishing some old nudes she did for rent money. The bar was essentially set.
Many of Berman's choices, in framing Hefner as a cultural touchstone and sexual tastemaker, are obvious to the point of being obtuse. The aforementioned scholar Mr. Simmons is shot being suffocated by KISS memorabilia; the equally vital Pat Boone is called on to conjure a little hellfire while walls covered in Pat Boone LPs close in on him; and a couple of feminists (including Susan Brownmiller) are shot looking defeated in front of a backdrop of dusty books and taxidermied penises. Hefner himself appears -- in his jam jams, of course -- with his Picasso looming over his shoulder. The talking-heads effect is deadening; by contrast much of the black-and-white archival footage -- especially that of Hefner's forays into television, where Sammy Davis Jr., Lenny Bruce, and Tony Curtis were guests -- function as Technicolor diversions.
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