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Movie Review: Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel 2 stars
Phase 4 Films, Rated R

I once had a relationship of my own with Hugh Hefner. No, it had nothing to do with Playboy bunnies. God no. Some years ago, I wrote movie reviews for an up-and-coming website on the raunchy side. Why they would want feminist-leaning analysis surrounded by surgically enhanced sex objects is anybody’s guess—maybe for laughs or a pretense of critical balance.


In any case, Playboy Enterprises online would soon take notice of this apparently irritating interloper and bought the site for a substantial amount of money, while allowing it to continue. That is, for about six months, during which time I endured the peculiar stares of bank tellers while cashing in checks engraved with the telltale bunny logo. And like any of those disposable bunnies Hugh Hefner samples and discards, I was soon out of that particular job. It became obvious the website had been purchased not as an acquisition, but simply to put a rival out of business.

Does a similar cynical method of operation apply to Hefner’s conspicuous consumption of women? Not if the vanity documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist And Rebel, a display of bloated puffery that easily rivals in its grotesque excess the most expansive synthetic chest of any bunny surrounding the leering old goat, is any indication.

And did I feel as exploited and dismissed as any run-of-the-mill resentful Playboy bunny? It would be hard to tell, since dissenting hotties, unlike, say, Hefner’s proclaimed rebel image of himself, are definitely not part of this unabashedly self-promoting production. But what can you expect when the filmmaker, Brigitte Berman, is reportedly an old friend and a woman no less.

OK, so Hefner likely deserves his cinematic bragging rights for staking out a claim as an early pioneer in opposing the stranglehold of American sexual repression and promoting civil rights and integration during the shameful days of Jim Crow, not to mention showcasing some of the most prestigious and memorable writing in his “magazine,” like Ray Bradbury, Alex Haley, blacklisted writers such as Dalton Trumbo, and even the last article written by Martin Luther King Jr. Some will say the combo messiah/masturbation maven’s good deeds don’t excuse the lead he took in the commodification of women, while others with a more suspicious bent will suggest the literary and progressive thrust of Playboy and the clubs, and the cultivation of his sideline politically subversive image-making was simply a Machiavellian move to extend his demographic and profit margins. But the lack of debate in this ingratiating advertisement masquerading as a documentary makes it hard to tell either way. The fleeting soundbites of a couple of badly lit cranky feminists don’t do much. (Though Susan Brownmiller’s advice to a suddenly speechless Hefner on television that he needs to don one of those bunny tails on his own behind to feel how the other shoe fits for a change was a nice touch.)

While the unconvinced out there might refer to the irony of Hefner’s trailblazer claims related to sexual freedom as hardly different from regressive harems or Middle Eastern/Mormon polygamy, there’s also that persistent elephant in the room in the course of this dubious documentary: His wallet, possibly using hush money to finance this endless sexual trafficking in women without which none of the rest of these sugar daddy fantasies come to life would exist, however willing the females.

To put it another way and on a more personal note, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist And Rebel is similar to the experience I encountered as an 8-year-old with a very different sort of playmate—a next-door neighbor who showed me her father’s secret stash of Playboy magazines she had discovered. The hurt look in her eyes is indelibly etched in my memory.

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