A major problem the documentary bio runs into is how to avoid hagiography. It’s enormously difficult to make a movie, so if you’re going to make one, you’ll probably feel passionate about the subject, which means you like it (or him, or her). So, too, will many of your interview and research subjects, who for propriety’s sake usually won’t want to be involved unless they feel they’re saying something positive. But unlike in literature, where the author’s critical intelligence can easily and obviously sort through, organize, and interpret other peoples’ words, the documentary biographer has to work much harder to fight against the physical presence of his or her talking heads.
Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel isn’t interested in fighting. From the title onward, it and its army of Hefner pals (many of them stars: Gene Simmons, Tony Bennett, Jack Nicholson) are out to show you what a nice, sweet, gentle, open-minded guy the old pornographer is. Hefner, of course, is the octogenarian founder of Playboy, and as one witness says, every guy in history would “give his left nut” to be the man—which would sort of defeat the point, if you think about it, but nevertheless the idea is valid.
The movie makes the argument that throughout his long career, Hefner has made every move in the interest of free speech. He certainly has done a lot for American letters, publishing important authors including Ray Bradbury, Hunter S. Thompson, Alex Haley, and James Ellroy, and taking strong liberal stands on free-speech issues like the Lenny Bruce obscenity case. Playboy has had the benefit of publishing better and more compelling articles and stories than most American publications, period, let alone the dirty ones.
But the articles aren’t why most people read the magazine, and by praising Hefner’s literary taste, the movie avoids the real issue. His goal in founding the magazine, he says, was “to create a healthier attitude about sex.” There is an argument to be made for this point—sex can (and should) be a natural part of life. I saw a sign once that read, “In America, sex is an obsession; in other countries, it’s a fact.” It could be said that Hefner’s magazine has helped Americans become more frank and open about sex.
At the same time, though, the magazine has done as much harm as good by offering its own myths, fantasies, and outright lies about sex. A typical Playboy features several articles by men alongside photos of naked women; the conclusion to be inferred is that men think and women pose. By making them pose with what Hefner calls “the hint of sex” (a man’s hand in the background, for instance), the magazine suggests that women live only to be taken. By airbrushing and altering the images of its women, the magazine further suggests that imperfect women (i.e., real ones) don’t deserve to be seen.
You can probably guess which side I take on the issue, but what bothers me about this movie isn’t that it’s pro-nudity, but rather that, after offering a few comments on both sides, it changes the subject. By the time the movie brings up the Obama election, and Hefner talks about the wonder of having a black president, you may want to roll your eyes. The absence of any comparisons to Hustler, Penthouse, or Internet porn might make you forget that Playboy, at heart, is about sex.
But the film even drops politics eventually, too, to dwell on shots of people partying at the Playboy mansion. Hefner smiles and talks fondly of the love he’s felt for various young blond women, and the movie shows him and the girls all laughing and smiling too. Pretty soon one realizes the movie’s point: Hefner’s work is beautiful because he’s beautiful. As with Playboy, the viewer decides whether to go along with the (incredibly blatant) fantasy.