There is little doubt that the personal and professional life of Hugh Hefner contains more than enough material for a great biopic or a great documentary.
He is, after all, one of the great success stories in the history of publishing, and he played a key role in a permanent shift in sexual mores in America. He was a largely unrecognized force in the American Civil Rights movement, and his personal romantic life is so turbulent that it seems almost like a Greek tragic counterpoint to his tremendous success. Like it’s so perfect it couldn’t be written that way.
So do I think you could make a great movie about Hugh Hefner? Absolutely.
Is this that movie? Absolutely not.
I quite liked Brigitte Berman’s Oscar-winning documentary about Artie Shaw, the clarinet-playing jazz musician. I thought it was atmospheric and evocative and really painted a picture of a time and place. Her latest film, “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel” is a well-meaning whiff, about as deep as an average episode of “The E! True Hollywood Story.” It lays out several of the more significant landmarks for Hefner, but there not one moment in the whole film where I get any sense of Hefner as a person.
As a symbol? Sure. As an icon? Yes. But Hefner has always maintained a distance from the public by design, wearing his Halloween mask so long that it’s become his face. Or in his case, his pajamas. I admire Hefner the way I admire Neo at the end of “The Matrix.” He managed to bend reality to pure will and remake the world the way he wanted it.
Part of the film’s issues stem from the over-reliance on vintage film instead of new interviews that would help fill in private gaps in the story. There are many great moments included in the film, proving just how great the magazine’s cultural gap has always been, but then again, that’s never really been disputed, has it? Probably the best point the film has to make is in highlighting the work Hefner did to help break down racial barriers in culture, and he certainly deserves all the credit anyone wants to give him for doing that. There’s a fair amount of running time devoted to the battle over stores who pulled Playboy off the shelves for being obscene. Honestly, though, I think anyone who ardently believes that Playboy is the same thing as hardcore pornography is unlikely to be persuaded otherwise by a documentary.
I’m not sure we’ll ever get that great Hugh Hefner movie. I’m not even sure who I think the right director would be, someone who can do carnal and epic and dramatic with equal ease. But unless you really feel lik esitting through a “and then this happened” recap of famous things Hefner did, there’s no compelling reason to track this one down.
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