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American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story (2017)

| June 3, 2019

Oh, that word.  That strange, naughty, tantalizing word.

If you were a kid growing up in the 70s or 80s – or basically any time between the end of World War II and the birth of the internet, “Playboy” was a word you didn’t dare utter.  It fit comfortably on the list of swear words that you weren’t suppose to say.  Yet, it was sort of irresistible, conjuring up images of gorgeous naked women and representing all the things your mother frowned upon.

There has always been a knee-jerk reaction to Playboy whether you approve of its content or not; everybody knows about it, and everyone has an opinion about it.  This goes to prove what a difficult and complex cultural phenomenon Hugh Hefner has wrought upon the American landscape brought to you by a man who has practiced what he preached for more than 60 years.  That’s really the crux of Amazon’s new ten-part documentary American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story, which makes the case that peddling pornography was never Hefner’s solitary goal.

American Playboy is a sometimes fascinating and sometimes merely well-intentioned recreation of all the seasons of Hefner’s life, from his formative years growing up in a strict Methodist household (where hugging and kissing were discouraged) through the creation of a magazine – and by extension a public figure – that would be a major player in the rising tide of social change in America in the second half of the 20th century.

The first two episodes deal with Hefner’s attempts to get the magazine off the ground (originally it was called “Stag Party” but at the eleventh hour, a hunting magazine called “Stag” threatened to sue).  The social restrictions of the 1950s were working against him.  America, just out of World War II, was repressive and conservative and there were obscenity laws on the books that outlawed the kind of publication that Hef was trying to get off the ground.  Through narration he makes note of the bitter irony that the idea of having a nude model in his magazine was paralleling a time when television wouldn’t allow married people to sleep in the same bed.  That didn’t stop Hefner from procuring photos of the most desired woman in the country at the, Marilyn Monroe, to be at the center of the first issue.  Forever after, however, he would dedicate his magazine to The Girl Next Door and to the notion that, in his words, “nice girls like sex too.”

Told partially with archival footage but mostly through dramatic reenactments (where Hefner is played, rather stiffly, by actor Mark Whelon) we follow the odyssey of this man who was clearly ahead of the time.  Hefner put the first issue together at his kitchen table, spurred by the frustrations of a restrictive time that turned a previously lusty party magazine like Esquire into a more conservative publication with all of its life and energy drained out.  At least, that’s the way Hefner saw it, and it inspired him to create his own.  But it wasn’t simply pin-up girls that were to be at the forefront.  He wanted to create a magazine for the bachelor lifestyle at a time when most men’s magazines dealt with hunting and fishing.  Playboy is slow to build, years in fact, but his vision paid off. By the time the magazine had become a cultural phenomenon, America had entered the Kennedy years and sexual freedom was the new normality.

What is ironic, however, is that while Playboy was ahead of its time in terms of sexual freedom, it would later be seen as outdated and stiff by the time of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.  Other publishers of porn magazines, most notably Penthouse founder Bob Guccione, were giving Playboy a run for its money by featuring full frontal nudity and sexual content that Hefner’s magazine did not.  Briefly Hefner shifted the content of Playboy to feature full frontal nudity when sales began to slip and to stay competitive (this is referred, rather indelicately, as the Pubic Wars).  All the while, Hefner realizes that his magazine stands out because of its content, its validation of sexual freedom; it’s willingness to cover difficult social issues like civil rights and the war on Vietnam.  Beyond being another sex magazine, Hefner seemed to want Playboy to be an open forum for more than just naked bodies.

The irony of all this is that the man at the center, whose upbringing forbad any kind of physical intimacy, was living the lifestyle he wrote about at the expense of his own romantic life.  He married his college sweetheart who bore him two children, but his devotion to the magazine came first.  When his marriage folds, Hef recasts himself as Mr. Playboy, always extolling the well-to-do party life that he creates on the page.  The series does a brilliant job of showing his personal evolution, from a repressed youth to his sexual awakening in college, through his offering of a better and more physical lifestyle to young men, and then in  his later years, remarrying and becoming a loving father.

The series also does a brilliant job of seeing Hefner through the difficult times, the changing tide of social morays, which led to his 1963 arrest and trial on obscenity charges, but also the rise of his empire with Playboy Clubs, a record label, a movie studio, two late-night television shows and later a cable channel, a reality series and the changes formulated by on rise of the internet.  Along the way, there are the darker chapters of the Playboy legacy; his legal battles, the 1975 suicide of his personal assistant Bobbie Arnstein, and later the murder of Playmate Dorothy Stratten in 1980.

Where the series comes up short, however, is on Hefner’s war with feminists.  We briefly see archival footage of his appearance on The Dick Cavett show in which Hefner is emasculated by Women’s lib representatives Susan Brownmiller and Sally Kempton who suggest that he trot around in the ears and fluffy tail of his club waitresses.  Hef looks suitably embarrassed but there’s no elaboration on this.  Hef spent years defending his magazine and his philosophy but there’s little in the way of his dealings with those who opposed him on the moral ground.  The same goes for the early passages of the series in which Hefner attempts to get the magazine going.  We see the machinations that got it off the ground, but where’s the blow back?  Where are the battles the he faced against the Morality Police of the 1950s?

All in all, American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story is a fascinating look into one of the most fascinating figures of recent American history.  He created an attitude of change in America when change was something that America wasn’t ready for.  He’s left a legacy larger than a magazine.  He helped to bring about the shape of things to come, from the repression of the 50s to the freedom of the 60s.  And yes, left us with that word . . . that tantalizing word.  It’s hard to imagine that “Stag Party” would have had the same impact.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2017) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary