The most interesting insight into what makes Hugh Hefner tick comes an hour and a half into Brigitte Berman’s overly long, insufficiently critical documentary, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel. Speaking of her father, Christie Hefner says, “My father has always enjoyed games … always with a combination of the fun and social side of it, but also always highly competitive.” The clip shows Hefner at the Playboy Mansion winning a game of pinball and letting out a primal whoop of triumph. It is the most uninhibited, engaged, and joyful moment of the entire film.
Hefner is certainly an enigma, but that doesn’t make him particularly interesting, at least not through the lens of this film. The portrait that emerges is of a man who loved the spotlight but lacked the looks and charisma to make it as an entertainer, so surrounded himself with more interesting, magnetic personalities as compensation. Despite all the former guests of the Playboy Mansion who paint Hefner as a crusader for civil rights and a scourge of censorship, the man himself does not come across as a particularly creative thinker. He seems like a driven, obsessive perfectionist who had one commercially viable idea and worked it as long as possible, motivated as much by competitive spite as by any deeply held convictions about the necessity in the world of a magazine filled with pictures of naked women.
The false logic at the heart of the documentary holds that because Hefner aligned himself with various laudable causes through the years (civil rights, the antiwar movement, etc.), his magazine is a force for positive change. No one in the documentary questions whether Hefner could have accomplished all the same things without publishing photos of topless women (“girls,” as the oh-so-enlightened Hef calls them) dressed like rabbits. According to Tony Bennett, once readers finished masturbating to the pictures, they actually read the articles—a fairly insulting characterization of the typical Playboy reader as needing a spoonful of cheesecake to help the medicine go down. The fact that magazines that publish insightful journalism and quality fiction without the nudie pics (The New Yorker, Esquire) are still around, and in better financial shape than Playboy, which has been losing money and subscribers for years and came close to bankruptcy in 2008, would disprove this notion.
Hefner himself doesn’t seem that interested in sex, or, at least, doesn’t have anything interesting to say about it. For that matter, neither does his magazine. Though Hefner makes a few tired protests about Playboy promoting a healthy image of female sexuality, the visuals tell a sadder, sillier story: from its inception, Playboy has sold the fantasy that women express their sexuality by lolling about nude, perhaps wearing a necktie or jaunty fedora, striking fetching poses in case any men happen to be watching through the window. Perhaps this is the real truth behind the joke about the guy who reads Playboy “for the articles”—it’s not that the writing is that great but that the pictures aren’t that sexy.
As the pinball scene suggests, what really turns Hefner on is competition. Once the government and the church tried to censor Playboy, he got the game of his life, not to mention a great PR opportunity. His stroke of genius was aligning himself with people and groups similarly persecuted for truly worthy causes. Hef the soft-core pornographer became Hef the humanitarian. In one outrageous clip he likens himself to Martin Luther King Jr. There’s even a sequence of Hefner’s plane, the Big Bunny, airlifting war orphans to the States for adoption, tended en route by bunnies and former bunnies, many of whom were mothers themselves.
There is one glaring omission in Hefner’s all-inclusive philosophy of civil rights, and that is the women he claims to celebrate. The Playboy Mansion, says comedian David Steinberg, was a place where you could find “Isaac Bashevis Singer and breasts,” a quote that sums up the magazine itself, as well as the documentary: all the Big Names are male, and all the body parts are female. For all the great writers and thinkers Hefner promoted in Playboy and on his two TV shows, Playboy Penthouse and Playboy After Dark, he evinces little interest in championing women with their clothes on—there’s a shot of a Playboy profile of Princess Grace, and a Playboy After Dark performance by Joan Baez. The documentary is filled with women, of course—posing naked in photographs, cavorting naked in the pool, draped nearly naked over Hef at one promotional event or another. If Hefner really was the champion of women’s rights he claims to be, it seems he might have hired a few more of them to write, not pose, for his magazine.