Arts & Events

New: Deconstructing Hef

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday August 20, 2010 - 12:13:00 PM

Haven't we seen enough of Hugh Hefner in his smoking robe and pajamas? Hasn't it been a couple of decades since we'd seen enough? Well, perhaps we can take one last look. His heyday may be long gone, his image and impact reduced by self-caricature and the sort of privilege that allows the wealthy to drift into irrevelance and senility with all their illusions intact; but whatever your take on the man, his mission and his achievements, Hefner has had a significant impact on American culture. 

Brigitte Berman's new documentary, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, puts these achievements into context, challenging our preconceived notions of a man who has spent nearly 60 years battling the government, the religious right and outraged feminists in his efforts to push us toward "a healthier attitude toward sex." The film opens Friday, Aug. 20 at Landmark's Lumiere Theater in San Francisco and at Shattuck Cinemas in downtown Berkeley. 

But sex is only one aspect of Hefner's career on the public stage. He fought for civil rights, and not merely as a celebrity endorser; he put his money and reputation on the line in defense of the First Amendment; he spoke out against the Vietnam War. In the '50s, '60s and '70s, Hefner never shied away from fighting for the causes he believed in. Newsman Mike Wallace didn't particularly like Hefner when he first interviewed him for 60 Minutes, and he didn't find Hefner's arguments convincing. But years later, Wallace did come to like Hefner, and said that, more than that, he trusted him; for Hefner, whether you agreed with him or not, was always honest and upfront with his beliefs.  

Hugh Hefner's improbable journey began when, as a young family man, he came to realize that he was not required to simply live out the model provided by his parents. Seeking an outlet for his creative talents as a writer and cartoonist, he began planning a men's magazine. It would be an intelligent magazine with a stable of talented writers and artists providing provocative essays, literary fiction, sharp cartoons and plenty of humor. But the most daring premise of his venture was its frank sexuality. Hefner would challenge accepted notions of sexual propriety and he would challenge sexually repressive laws, making the claim that, if those laws were enforced, most of the population would face prison sentences of at least five years. His magazine would would air out the sexual taboos of the 1950s with the radical idea that, not only was sex a natural and very important aspect of life, but that women liked it, too.  

The first Playboy centerfold was a long rumored but rarely seen nude photo of Marilyn Monroe that Hefner tracked down. Soon Hefner would move from purchasing photos of models and would further explicate his view of sex by staging his own photo sessions, seeking amateur girl-next-door types, presenting sex as common, healthy, fun — even pure in a slightly prurient way.  

The magazine courted controversy from the beginning, and Hefner took on his opponents without hesitation, fighting his battles in editorials, in other media, and in the courts. Circulation climbed quickly; within a few years Playboy surpassed Esquire by selling 700,000 copies a month. In time that number would reach 2 million. 

Soon Playboy became a high-profile brand and the empire expanded to include a syndicated television show, in which Hefner showcased artists, musicians and intellectuals. His willingness to bring in black guests, including mixed-race vocal groups, thrust him into the civil rights debate, as did his support for Lenny Bruce, whom Hefner provided with legal counsel when the comedian was arrested for obscenity. When Hefner learned that the owners of his Playboy nightclub franchises in the South were, in accordance with discriminatory state laws, refusing to admit black customers or book black performers, he bought the clubs back and ran them himself, defying the law by booking controversial comedian Dick Gregory. As Gregory put it, the white attitude toward black entertainers at the time was, "You can sing to me, nigger, but you can't talk."  

Feminists considered these causes and the literary content of his magazine a sort of front, a clever ploy to raise the stature of the magazine and to legitimize Hefner's real vocation: pornography. They called him on the inherent misogyny of the presentation of the girl next door as a closeted wild animal, waiting to spring into action at the snap of a man's fingers; they criticized his promotion of an unattainable physical ideal that few women could emulate; they claimed that he treated women as commodities, as mere fodder for male fantasy, and that the practice was harmful to men as well as women.  

The film includes a confrontation with critics on the Dick Cavett Show during which Hefner did not have an answer for these allegations. In a telling moment, he refers to his two feminist critics as girls, making his blind spot apparent: In Hefner's eyes, he's no sexist, no misogynist; he loves girls. Women, however, are a more complex proposition.  

It's a curious mindset that can't see the problematic nature of Hefner's relations with, and presentations of, women. The glamor of the parties at the Playboy Mansion, where Hefner supplied his celebrity friends with wine, food and beautiful women, doesn't conceal his role as a sort of high-society pimp. He fails to recognize the possibility that women are drawn to him not out of love or physical attraction, but because of his money and power and star-making potential, his ability to launch a young woman on a career path as he did Jenny McCarthy, Shannon Tweed and Pamela Anderson. His proclamations of sexual honesty and freedom belie the fact that his view of sex is not only relentlessly male-centric but blatantly adolescent. Thus his provocative centerfolds spurred a national debate while simultaneously retarding it; they put sex center-stage but it was a rather limited view of sex, and when that point was made, Hefner and Playboy were ill-prepared for the debate that followed. 

In the Reagan years, Playboy was beset by a boycott campaign that pressured convenience stores to drop the magazine, leading to significant losses in circulation which it never recovered. The nightclubs closed; a Playmate was murdered; and Hefner suffered a stroke. His brush with death changed his outlook and he tried marriage and family life again; but once that marriage failed, he returned to his swinging ways with a vengeance, overcompensating with polygamous relationships with a bevy of young, buxom blondes.  

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, for years a friend, supporter and admirer of Hefner, says she no longer mentions his name when debating issues of sexual freedom; he mixed up his personal life with his mission, she says, so that the self-caricature of his later years has undermined his credibility and the merits of his arguments — people just don't take him seriously anymore. Other friends interviewed in the film say that love is his "rosebud," the elusive childhood longing that motivates the man.  

So if your image of Hefner is a doddering old fool drifting into senility with a bleach-blonde silicon doll on each arm, his lascivious grin masking the emptiness inside as his improbably buoyant companions serve as substitutes for love ... well, fair enough. But it's the extremist who push the limits, who forges the debate and pushes us toward progress. Hefner established the other end of the spectrum; we may not travel even half the distance across that spectrum, but at least we know the limits, allowing us to better define ourselves and our place on the continuum. Hefner is happy to help people to define their values, even if they only define them in opposition to his own.  


Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel 

124 minutes. Rated R. Showing at the Lumiere Theater in San Francisco and Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.  

Directed by Brigitte Berman. Featuring Hugh Hefner, Jim Brown, Gene Simmons, Jenny McCarthy, Mike Wallace, Dick Gregory, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Tony Bennett, James Caan, Joan Baez, David Steinberg, George Lucas, Bill Maher, Pete Seeger.