Elevate Difference

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

The documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel aims to rise above traditional pit stops of jiggles and giggles while recounting the tale of Playboy Magazine’s founder and editorial icon. This is an investigation into a man who consistently pushed the envelope in the name of freedom; a gentleman baffled by repression, who sensed an incredible opportunity to create a magazine that catered to the curious and the liberal, personifying a sexual revolution that lasted for decades. Yes, there’s nudity and plenty of footage exploring the heyday of Playboy parties, but the picture is more concerned with the man behind the ears, who built an empire while changing the world.

Chicago-bred Hugh M. Hefner, scraping together loans and favors, published the first issue of Playboy in 1953, using well known but little seen nude pictures of Marilyn Monroe as a hook to bring readers into a world of sophistication. The magazine took off like a rocket, with Hefner firmly in command; a control freak who pored over every last detail of the publication, firmly believing what he was putting out monthly was a critical tool in releasing America from the grips of destructive, conservative thinking. Employing some of the brightest minds and the softest bodies, Hefner built a kingdom with Playboy that still stands today, over five controversial decades later.

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel recounts the less illuminated side of Hefner, beyond the pajamas, blondes, and pipes. Director Brigitte Berman seeks out the history of Hefner as an activist and philosopher, who used Playboy as a vessel to challenge mores and promote liberation during America’s darkest periods. Playboy wasn’t solely about skin, but a platform for ideas, with Hefner employing authors such as Alex Haley and Ray Bradbury when publishers turned their backs, or using the pages for his own thoughts on the repressed state of the union. Starting with Playboy’s introduction to the newsstand, the documentary sets off on a vast journey of illustration, with film footage and Hef’s own scrapbooks covering the vicissitudes of Playboy, which soon became a number one target for censorship by anyone looking to set a volatile example for the media.

While scattered at times, Berman colors her subject wonderfully, sitting down with Hefner as he recalls his battles with a certain world-weary creak. Interviews with friends, commentators, and contemporaries (including Gene Simmons, Jenny McCarthy, Mike Wallace, and Bill Maher) fill out the discussion some, while the director also makes room for Hef’s detractors, including Susan Brownmiller, a feminist author who retains distaste for the Playboy mastermind decades after their rather combustible debate on The Dick Cavett Show. The conversations look to expand Hefner past his reputation, shedding light on his drive to combat racial tension during the ‘60s and ‘70s (erasing color lines on his popular television programs and inside the Playboy Clubs), his troubles with the law facing trumped-up charges that sought to destroy his reputation, and his arc from panty-twirling revolutionary to pariah as the 1980s ushered in a conservative, religiously rigid era that didn’t show much patience for the Playboy lifestyle.

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel is certainly reverent of Hefner’s cultural accomplishments, delivering a convincing argument with a smooth, efficient visual style that combines talking heads with insider footage and a few splashes of animation. The documentary does a swell job positioning Hugh Hefner in a different light, showcasing the man’s forward-thinking ideals and his hopeless addictions (love being a major failure in his life), while stripping away the glamour to find a sensitive, concerned core. At eighty-four years of age, Hugh Hefner has boxed himself into a cartoon reputation of sorts with the success of The Girls Next Door, but here he’s offered the chance to reignite his passion for life though conversation, and there’s no better boat captain of memories and accomplishments around.

Written by: Brian Orndorf, August 2nd 2010

What a disappointing review. I expected a strong feminist analysis of the documentary and got something that belonged in a "mainstream" journal like Time and Newsweek.

This is just one more example of American feminism losing its mojo. I hate to say it, but American feminism in so many ways has sold out to patriarchy.

For Ebony Edwards-Ellis:

You raise a lot of very good points in your comment. Despite my admittedly contrasting comments about this review, I do agree with you about the tone. I also found it troublesome.

Thank you for sharing, and have a great day! :)

  • Fellow reviewer M. Brianna Stallings

My comment about Mr. Hefner is my personal opinion only. I agree we shouldn’t judge people on generalizations but some people we know quite well without actually having met them.

Although I have never personally met Hugh Hefner I have known thousands of men like Hugh Hefner. Men like Hugh Hefner have brought a lot of sadness and sorrow into other people’s lives.

While I don't think it's wrong to photograph nude women and publicize the picture, I think it is rather foolish to pretend that Playboy isn't somewhat exploitational. After all, how many women became rich as a direct result of their decision to pose for the mag? (Jenny McCarthy and Pamela Anderson don't count as they earned most of their money doing things NOT related to Playboy.)

As far as Hugh Heffner's attempt to "eras[e] color lines on his popular television programs and inside the Playboy Clubs"...so what? His willingness to exploit women of color in his clubs and his willingness to share space with men of color while they drooled over those very same women (and a few white ones as well) doesn't mean he believed in racial liberation--only equal opportunity exploitation.

While your review is well-written, Brian, I found its congratulatory tone to be a bit off-putting.

Fellow reviewer,

Ebony Edwards-Ellis

*to SAY his has been. Sorry for the typo.

I do not condone the "Playboy" image Hefner single-handedly engineered. He has long skirted a very thin line between the glorification and the exploitation of women.

However, I also do not condone: a. sex negativity; or b. broad-sweeping generalizations about a person I have never met. In my estimation, there are as many definitions of love as there are people in this world. Despite his (now struggling) empire and the images it has propagated, we have no way of knowing how Hefner defines love in his own life.

Furthermore, I think it strange to sad his has been a sad life when some of the obvious secondary goals of his publication have been to provide voices to disenfranchised writers (isn't that what something like Feminist Review also does, but in a different way), and free-speech advocacy.

Thank you for your comment, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this matter.

  • M. Brianna Stallings

What a sad life! I doubt Mr. Hefner ever expereienced true love and in life from a woman aside from his daughter.

Not even one mention of Hefner and his empire being sexist in this entire review. How did this make it onto a feminist review site? Very disappointing. I skimmed through all of the movies listed on this site to find the one I thought would have the best opportunity for feminist analysis, but didn't see any of that here.

That was my first thought as I was closing in on the final paragraph. Where's the feminism?