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

Tabloid


Tabloid

Joyce McKinney strikes a pose.

(2010) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Joyce McKinney, Jackson Shaw, Peter Tory, Kent Gavin, Troy Williams, Dr. Hong. Directed by Errol Morris

Some stories are too good to be true. Some are so weird that they could only be true. Some are both – and those are so rare that when they happen, it takes a master documentarian to chronicle them.

Joyce McKinney was a beauty pageant winner (Miss Wyoming World) who, during a stay in Utah, fell in love with a young Mormon man named Kirk Anderson. By all accounts, the feeling was mutual although his parents, devout Mormons, disapproved of the free-spirited McKinney quite acutely. One day, by McKinney’s reckoning, he just up and disappeared – vanished without a trace.

Stung and still deeply in love, she went to Los Angeles and hired a private detective who traced Anderson to England where he was on a mission for the Church – something most Mormon males aspire to. She gets it into her head that Kirk has been brainwashed and sets off to England to indulge in her own brand of de-programming.

Aided by a close friend named Keith May, a bodyguard (who quickly pulled out of the venture) and a pilot named Jackson Shaw (who also pulled out when he discovered what was really going on), she made plans to spirit her love away to a Devon cottage and after a weekend of intense lovemaking and gourmet meals, he made plans to marry her right away and went back to collect his things.

Or, if you believe Anderson’s account, she kidnapped him at gunpoint, shackled him to a bed in a Devon cottage, attempted to seduce him and when that failed, raped him repeatedly after which he lulled her into thinking he wanted to marry her and called the police the moment he got free.

McKinney was later arrested and incarcerated. A story like this even in 1977 was too juicy and too irresistible for the tabloids to pass up and they carried stories of the Case of the Manacled Mormon, as it was referred to at the time. McKinney and May were later released on bail and became quasi-celebrities (McKinney showing up to the London premiere of Saturday Night Fever where she was spotted with John Travolta). However when the crush of the press became too much, McKinney and her partner-in-crime fled the country, disguised as mimes. Yes, mimes!

While in the United States, competing newspapers (The Daily Mail and the Mirror) both sent reporters to try and get the story that was Joyce McKinney. While she allowed the Daily Mail the interview rights, the Mirror sent a journalist who dug into her past and discovered…nude pictures. These were splashed all over the rag’s pages, along with allegations of selling her body for money. There were so many stories out there that nobody really knew who the real Joyce McKinney was.

Neither will you after viewing this movie but for once, that’s a good thing. We really get only one viewpoint as to the events depicted here – McKinney’s (Anderson, quite wisely I think, declined to be interviewed for the film as he has for all other interviews about the incident). We don’t even get Morris’ viewpoint which is something he’s notorious for. He is one of the most objective documentarians alive. Whether he thought McKinney raped Anderson or had a tryst with him he keeps to himself.

I’ll be honest, early on I was believing McKinney’s version. She seemed to be so effervescent, so sweet and so believable. However the more she talked, the less she seemed to make sense and after a short while you begin to understand she’s a totally unreliable witness. Da Queen called her cuckoo and she might actually be, but the longer the film goes, the more bizarre it gets.

Because there’s only one point of view, we really don’t get compelling evidence that Anderson’s version is the right one. Peter Tory, a reporter for the Daily Mail, opines that the truth is probably somewhere in between the two stories – that there were some consensual elements that Anderson felt prudent to hide, but that somewhere along the way he got cold feet particularly when it came to marrying McKinney, which she clearly believed was about to happen.

This is one of the most fascinating and compelling documentaries you’re ever likely to see, and while it isn’t a game changer like, say Capitalism: A Love Story and An Inconvenient Truth, it is going to at least keep your interest and stay with you long after the film is over.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating stuff

REASONS TO STAY: It just keeps getting weirder, and weirder, and weirder…

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexual content and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Morris uses a technique called the Interrotron, in which he uses mirrors to give his interview subjects a face to respond to rather than speaking to a blank lens.

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly well-suited to home theater for those who prefer their titillation in private.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Bruce Almighty