HUGH HEFNER: PLAYBOY, ACTIVIST AND REBEL
Directed by Brigitte Berman
The morality of Hugh Hefner’s social influence has been debated ad nauseam — after all, the Playboy founder has built an empire on the objectification of women. Brigitte Berman’s documentary, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, argues he’s also promoted an open dialogue about sexuality, fought censorship, and been at the forefront of liberal activism for civil and women’s reproductive rights.
So, the question is: Filthy pornographer or revolutionary?
With its objectives listed plainly in its title, it’s obvious what side Berman’s film takes. Savvy audiences, however, may want more than an overly fawning — though thoroughly engrossing — account of this iconic octogenarian’s cultural impact.
Berman’s range of interview subjects adds interesting details to Hefner’s fascinating life, and are themselves a delightfully strange assortment of people. From Pat Boone, the former singer-songwriter turned Christian activist, to KISS bassist Gene Simmons, to famed sex therapist Dr. Ruth, Berman moves in a linear fashion through the publishing magnate’s personal and professional development. She also makes a strong case for both his rebellious and activist natures, including founding a jazz festival in the 1950s, prominently featuring African Americans in print and on TV before the Civil Rights Movement, and waving a middle finger at the Communist blacklist.
An artful mix of archival footage and stills from Playboy, the doc falters when brief, animated sequences are used to clumsily segue from one subject to the next. Additionally, its lack of substantive objectivity makes for a very lopsided experience that reveals less about Hefner and more about Berman’s shaky self-confidence as a filmmaker. We’re offered soundbites from a smattering of feminist authors about the dangers of Playboy, but the gulf between Hefner’s vision and the reality of that vision is largely ignored. This is more of an exercise in infotainment than in journalism. —Andrea Warner