Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel


Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

Sex in the early '60s: Hef and the Bunnies.

(2009) Documentary (Metaphor) Hugh Hefner, Bill Maher, Tony Bennett, George Lucas, Joan Baez, Jim Brown, James Caan, Jesse Jackson, Jenny McCarthy, Gene Simmons, Shannon Tweed, Pete Seeger, Mike Wallace, David Steinberg, Dick Cavett, Tony Curtis. Directed by Brigitte Berman

There have been many polarizing figures in the 20th century. Ronald Reagan, for example; conservatives look at him as a great president, one whose economic philosophy have shaped our economy for the past thirty years and have led us to unprecedented prosperity. Liberals look at him as the architect for our greed-dominated society and see his presidency as an American tragedy.

Hugh Hefner gets the same sort of reception. The publisher of Playboy magazine is responsible for the popularization of the centerfold. To the minds of the radical feminists, he has led to the objectification of women and is indirectly or directly responsible for the rape and abuse of women by men who have bought in to his philosophy. To conservatives, he is an immoral man, dedicated to the destruction of American society and the corruption of American morality.

Most people see the swinging lifestyle; the pajamas, the pipe, the smile and the 20-something women cavorting at the Shangri La-esque Playboy mansion. They see an octogenarian with seven girlfriends young enough to be his great-great granddaughters and yes, there is an element of the ridiculous to it. Overkill at the very least.

But there is more to Hef than meets the eye, and those who have followed his career will know that. Hef has been a crusader for First Amendment rights through his magazine, supporting the legal defense of those rights (often with cash donations) and during the Blacklisting era, printing pieces by Dalton Trumbo and other writers who could get no work elsewhere.

He has also been a champion for civil rights. His Playboy clubs and “Playboy After Dark” television show gave exposure to African-American performers who might never have gotten an audience. Sammy Davis Jr., Dizzy Gillespie and Dick Gregory all regularly worked in Hefner’s establishments. He supported Martin Luther King’s agenda both editorially and with contributions to his cause.

And he has also defended women’s reproductive rights as well as their civil rights as well. He has supported the “Equal Pay for Equal Work” theory as well as nurturing the careers of women into executive positions at his own company. He works tirelessly for the environment as well as for the preservation of jazz, an art form he’s passionate about.

Berman was given unprecedented access to the magazine’s archives and to Hefner’s own personal collection of letters and documents; she also was able to get her hands on footage from Hefner’s television shows which are some of the most fascinating moments of the film.

Hefner is often simply thought of as a pornographer and a fairly mild one at that; his pictorials tend to be much more artistic and less hardcore than those of, say, Larry Flynt or Bob Guccione. In some ways, he’s rather archaic – Playboy is essentially less of a factor in publishing the pictures of naked women than the Internet is. His legacy, however is far more complicated.

Hef didn’t invent sex but he brought it out of the recesses of puritanical dogma. He didn’t make it okay for women to like sex, but he supported the concept and helped popularize it. He didn’t objectify women – that’s been around far longer than Playboy – but he did help develop what the male ideal was for women physically (can we all say big boobs?) and make being a centerfold an aspiration for many women.

There is nothing wrong with sex. There is nothing wrong with being sexual. Pleasure doesn’t have to be a dirty word. But sex goes arm in arm with responsibility and Hef knew that. He used the prurient interest in his magazine to fund his social causes and there is some irony in that.

Tarring Hefner with the brush of a pornographer misses the point of what he’s done, and is rather simplistic and naive. I don’t always agree with his lifestyle and I wonder why he has rarely gone for women closer to his own age – I also wonder if there is too much emphasis on sex in his philosophy. Sex is, after all, only a part of life and while it is an important part, it’s not the most important part.

But that’s once again not all there is to Hefner. He has championed causes that have needed a champion, and has stood up for things that were unpopular back in the day. Most importantly, he has helped usher in a change of American values and hopefully, not all of it has to do with sex. Some of it has to do with compassion and the dignity of all people. Hugh Hefner may not be a hero to most, but in all honesty he deserves to be and this movie captures that largely unremarked upon aspect of him.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating look inside the legend. Some great footage from the old “Playboy After Dark” television show. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really challenge much. Presents Hef as a bit of a saint.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity (of the Playboy centerfold variety) and a bit of sexual content as you might imagine.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Berman’s previous documentary was about big band leader Artie Shaw.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10,000 on an unreported production budget; I suspect the movie was unprofitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: J.Edgar

Smash His Camera


Smash His Camera

Ron Galella's Mona Lisa.

(Magnolia) Ron Galella, Betty Galella, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Marlon Brando, Dick Cavett, Robert Redford, Liz Smith, Neil Leifer. Directed by Leon Gast

It’s no secret that our society is celebrity obsessed. We eagerly devour every kernel of information about them; who are they seeing, where are they eating, what are they wearing. We are in a feeding frenzy for images of those whose lives we want to lead.

Stirring that frenzy are the paparazzi, photographers who make a living stalking the rich and famous, taking candid snapshots, and often using unethical or even illegal means. One of the first of these and most notorious is Ron Galella. He works mostly out of the New York area – he was a fixture at Studio 54 back in the day. His tactics were considered outrageous in the 70s and 80s when he was at his height, although he still continues to take pictures today.

Galella is a shameless self-promoter, and one gets the distinct impression that he considers himself as much a celebrity as some of his subjects. He was most famous for his stalking of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; their relationship bordered on the psychotic obsessive on both sides, he in getting pictures of her, she with stopping him by any means necessary which often had something to do with lawsuits. She finally won a restraining order from the photographer, requiring him to stand no closer than 150 feet, which he was known to violate from time to time. His most famous photograph remains one of her, crossing a street on a windy day, an enigmatic smile on her face and her hair ruffled by the breeze. It’s an extraordinary shot, one that Galella justifiably considers his Mona Lisa, and is one of the most enduring images we have of the former First Lady.

Inevitably when discussing the paparazzi the conversation must turn to the conflict between the First Amendment rights of the photographer versus the right to privacy of their subjects. Of course, you know I’m going to weigh in on that score. When you venture out into a public place, you cannot have the expectation of privacy. That goes for the non-celebrity as well as the celebrity. If you go out to grab a bite to eat and someone snaps your picture, it doesn’t matter if you’re not looking your best and you don’t want to be photographed. People have the right to take pictures in public places.

It is only when the paparazzi take pictures of celebrities in their homes or yards that I have issues; after all, a person presumes they have privacy in their own home. It isn’t public property, it is private property and the expectation of privacy is in force there. Galella once took pictures through a hedge into the front entranceway of Katherine Hepburn (I think); the star was notoriously reclusive, so Galella felt it was acceptable to go to extreme lengths to get his shot. To me that was over the line; it was rarely done in Galella’s day but it is much more commonplace today, particularly with the advent of telephoto lenses that can take reasonably clear shots from hundreds of yards away.

Okay, I’m off my soapbox for now and back to doing what you’re here to read about – the documentary. Gast does a pretty balanced job of providing discussion from both sides of the fence. Some support Galella, particularly people like gossip columnist Liz Smith who in some ways has a vested interest – after all, her livelihood depended on much the same need for celebrity information. However, Galella has plenty of critics, such as Neil Leifert who deplores the tactics used by Galella and those who have followed in his footsteps, as well as Thomas Hove, a critic who feels his photography is without merit and will lose its relevance at roughly the same rate that his subjects do.

That is borne out somewhat when a young woman tours an installation of Galella’s photos and clearly hasn’t a clue who many of the subjects are. The question becomes are those photos still art or does their status as art depend on our knowledge of the subject? That really is the crux of the matter and Gast does a good job of bringing it up in the right way.

Gast, for those who don’t know him, is a superb documentarian, with the highly-acclaimed When We Were Kings to his credit. This isn’t quite up to the standards of that classic, but still is a highly thought-provoking look not only at the quagmire that comes from supporting the First Amendment (one talking head refers to Galella as its price tag) but at the over-the-top character who I suspect wanted to be as much a part of the show as his subjects were and are.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating insight into the ongoing debate between the First Amendment and the right to privacy.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Galella suffers from an excess of self-promotion.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few instances of foul language and some nudity, albeit in an artistic setting. Nothing here that most teenagers haven’t dealt with before.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After having his jaw shattered by a single punch by Brando, Galella took to wearing a football helmet whenever he was photographing the mercurial star.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A photo gallery especially selected by Galella.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3644 on an unreported production budget. As a theatrical release, this didn’t make any money; however the movie has already aired on HBO and may well have recouped its production costs via that route.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Catfish