Written by Dave Younger
This is an entertaining and informative biopic of the American icon. Starting with a $600 loan from the bank, he parlays his good fortune of coming across Marilyn Monroe pay-the-rent nudes into an I-gotta-see-this magazine. Along the way he publishes some great fiction – Ray Bradbury says nobody wanted his Fahrenheit 451, so he sells it to Hef for $400 – and non-fiction: groundbreaking interviews with Jimmy Carter, Miles Davis and John Lennon. His road was filled with battles, because America in the 50s was staunchly conservative. And racist, so imagine the shock of seeing blacks and whites mingle on his TV show Playboy’s Penthouse. (Sammy Davis Jr. is given a puppy for Christmas by the eternally suave Hef – “Oh, hi, I didn’t see you come in.”)
Directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Brigitte Berman (she won for a biopic of Artie Shaw that didn’t really go into his marriages with Lana Turner and Ava Gardner), she skips over his early marriage almost completely – never mentioning the wife’s name – and only mentions one of the big loves of his life by first name: Sondra (Theodore). Similarly, his second wife Kimberly (Conrad) is only referred to by first name. Also given short shrift are the suicide of his personal secretary, the murder of Playmate Dorothy Stratten, and his daughter Christie, who was CEO for almost 20 years. The main focus is on Hef’s battles: with censorship, freedom of speech, and racial equality. Blacks and whites couldn’t mingle in the same nightclub down south because of segregation laws. Hefner befriends Martin Luther King, and later, because of that friendship, becomes close with Jesse Jackson. It’s not entirely believable, but a case is made that Obama couldn’t have become President without Hefner’s pioneering battles with the government.
Rated R (abundant nudity but nothing pornographic) and narrated smirkingly by Gene Simmons, Hugh Hefner features a who’s-who of 20th Century pop culture: Mike Wallace, Jenny McCarthy, Bill Maher, Tony Curtis, Joan Baez, George Lucas, Dick Gregory, Tony Bennett, Jim Brown and more. Like many of us, Hefner struggled in high school, but he made a breakthrough when he rechristened himself Hef. He turned into an entertainer and a partier whose sole focus was making sure others were having a great time. This was true later on in life also, as friends recount how Hef was obsessed with having the best food at his parties, but wasn’t interested in it himself – he’d rather have fried chicken or pork chops. Although he seemed glib, he was a workaholic who was determined to remake America: his Playboy Philosophy essays detailed his vision for a new, kinder, fairer version of America. Maybe they were only written to explain himself to his mother (who’s still alive), but many people seized on them as a manifesto for a brave new world.
The aspect ratio is 1.85:1. A mix of black-and-white and color, the look is workmanlike and unremarkable. With so many clips obviously from Hef’s personal collection, it’s a jumble of various cameras and film stocks. The less said the better.
The sound is Dolby Digital 5.1. Dialog is very clear, but sometimes boomy. Much use is made of the center speaker, and the surrounds and subwoofer are used little. There is not a very wide spatiality; mostly it’s confined to the talking heads, which is as it should be in a biopic.
A trailer. Three minutes.
Overlong at 124 min., this is an involving but too-fawning look at this rebel-with-a-cause. He’s treated like a saint, and with people like Pat Boone saying he’s immoral, Jenny McCarthy rightly asks, “Is he God or the Devil?” He loved women, but he idealized them so much he removed all their imperfections so that they weren’t human anymore. He says he didn’t get enough hugs when he was a child, so he overcompensated and after his stroke in the mid 80s had seven girlfriends at once. But if enough people see this film, his legacy is ensured: he helped bring puritanical America out of the backward and racist 50s and into the colorful and liberal sexuality of the 60s and 70s. And maybe, just maybe, helped elect Barack Obama.