“I was in a home where I was not getting hugged.” Contemplating his past, Hugh Hefner comes up with some plausible and unsurprising explanations for his career choices. During the 1950s, he perceived the need for a “healthier attitude toward sex,” he says. It’s likely, he says, “The reason why I majored in psychology in college [was] to try to understand why we are the way we are.”
While it’s not entirely clear who “we” are in this formulation, Hefner goes on, in Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, to trace the start of Playboy magazine to his experiences as a child. A faded snapshot shows his parents and his own young family seated at a birthday party table, smiling for the camera. He recalls wondering, “Is my life simply going to be a playing out of a variation on my parents’? Is there nothing more?”
As everyone knows, Hefner did not “play out” his parents’ experience (both were teachers). Instead, he pursued different sorts of parties, premised on particular sorts of fantasies. While these achieved a remarkable scope and reach, they were hardly revolutionary: as George Lucas says in Brigitte Berman’s documentary, “I create fantasies, Hef creates fantasies. Half the fantasies we create already exist in people’s minds and we just draw them out.” That is, it was the familiarity as much as the ostensible newness of the fantasies that made them acceptable, not to mention extremely profitable.
Making the case for Hefner’s courageous vision, the film sets up some obvious oppositions between those who appreciate his enterprise and those who object to it. A typical sequence begins with Gene Simmons (“He made it okay for women also to like sex”), proceeds to Susan Brownmiller (”Playboy did not speak to women, women were used in “Playboy for men’s masturbatory fantasies. I don’t see how any women would be liberated”), and closes with Hefner’s own summation: “I courted controversy, that’s how you change things.”
The question this sequence begs is what “things” were changed. Certainly, as the magazine made available images of specific types of naked women—and so challenged legal restrictions, having to do with the mail as well as what counts as “obscenity” (the film invokes Jerry Falwell, but doesn’t note that the focus of his 1988 Supreme Court case on “parody” ended up being Hustler).
Also certainly, these images were not radical. The infamous “girl-next-door” reinforces standards of “beauty” and desirability. While Hefner insists, “I wanted to make the statement that beauty was everywhere,” the photos also represent a conventional seduction. As Hefner says, the poses he designs (and he says here that he continues to oversee most every aspect of the magazine’s layout and production to this day) mean “to introduce the suggestion of the presence of a man.” As such, they create what he calls a “sexual situation,” in which the women—gazing at the camera, parting their lips—invited specific looking and fantasizing.
More than once, the film tones down its hagiographic impulses with occasional dissent by interviewees Pat Boone (“For a society to have any kind of moral standard, it needs to have some limits on what is allowed”) and Brownmiller. During an appearance on Dick Cavett’s show with Hefner, she observes that he would not “willing to come out here with a cottontail attached to your rear end.” The film cuts to his counter-argument, in an interview after the Cavett appearance, that it’s all right to make women “look like animals,” because we’re all animals, and so missing the original point about women in bunny costumes. Jenny McCarthy argues that Hefner exemplifies a constructive contradiction, someone who might be “working for the devil and God at the same time.” To illustrate the latter, the film includes brief testimony from Lois Lee, founder of Children of the Night, a group assisting children forced into prostitution and supported by Hefner.
Hefner’s good work is framed as a kind of boldness. The times were repressive and so, potential customers were easily titillated, just as potential protestors were easily provoked. His publication of a naked photo of Marilyn Monroe in the first issue in 1953 was surely smart marketing. More impressively, Hefner also made a point to feature black writers in the magazine (Alex Hailey was a frequent interviewer, and Hefner suggests this experience led him to write Root) and black performers on his television shows, Playboy’s Penthouse (which premiered in 1959 and ran for two seasons) and Playboy After Dark (1969). He also showcased black performers—singers and comics—in Playboy clubs in Miami and New Orleans, at the time legally segregated. (The film does not mention that the magazine’s first black playmate, Jennifer Jackson, appeared in 1965.)
As Hefner recalls the TV show, its format is unusual, in that a handheld camera invites viewers to feel “like a guest,” at a swanky soiree, featuring blacklisted performers like Pete Seeger, anti-Vietnam war performers like Country Joe and the Fish, and black performers, like Dizzy Gillespie, as well as mixed-race groups like The Getaways or Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. One clip shows Hefner gifting Sammy Davis, Jr. with a St. Bernard puppy, which the singer embraces as he sings “My Kind of Town (Chicago).” It’s a strikingly odd moment, as Davis is surrounded by white party guests, smoking cigarettes, holding cocktails, and nodding their heads on some sort of beat, as he exits with his puppy. During the film’s closing credits, you see the end of this scene, when he comes back on the set, still hugging his puppy and complaining good-naturedly that they’ve let him “exit” into a closet.
Surely, Hefner’s work against racism is admirable. Jim Brown, Dick Gregory, and Jesse Jackson all speak on his behalf, and Mike Wallace goes so far as to connect Obama’s election to Hefner’s pioneering efforts: “I think that Hef helped build that audience with a different attitude about civil rights, despite the fact that he was not a protestor or a loudmouth.” Again, the film builds sequences carefully: Jackson says, “I was attracted to him basically because he was so committed to Dr. King,” and then Hefner notes of Martin Luther King’s dream, “People don’t recognize or realize the extent to which it was my dream too.”
Such revelations, however self-serving, do help to complicate Hefner’s image. Certainly, he looks coherent and admirable compared to, say, the notorious hypocrite Charles Keating, who founded Citizens for Decent Literature in 1958 and tried to censor Playboy. By the same token, Hefner’s support of legal and political causes like contraception and abortion, suggests his progressive inclinations, and sets him apart from a neanderthal like Simmons (still prone to generalizations like, “Women are much more disconnected from their sexuality than men”). If Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel suffers occasionally from a simplistic organization or lack of context, it does make a convincing case that its subject was ahead of his time even as he was mired in it.