Sure, I watch documentaries about Playboy—but only for the stories. With the strenuously high-minded Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, you might actually forget that the berobed icon really has a thing for tits. Hef’s massive empire, built on its celebration of the female form, gets short shrift in an overlong profile that dwells on historic interviews by Playboy writer Alex Haley, intellectual TV chats and the mag founder’s workaholic appetites. The result is a frustrating coyness that goes a long way toward negating what was truly provocative about Hefner’s salad days: the creation of a lopsided if unencumbered lifestyle for men and women, symbolized by the unending party at the Mansion.
The irony here is that Hefner’s achievements do belong in a liberal context; in the ’50s and ’60s, Playboy Clubs broke racial barriers, and the magazine’s crusading ethos resulted in many important legal cases regarding contraception and sodomy. Indeed, the best parts of Brigitte Berman’s doc say more with less, like the wonderful footage of Sammy Davis Jr. serenading a televised penthouse get-together, the white guests smiling and bopping along uncontrollably. But why ignore the 800-pound bust in the room? A proper profile of Hefner would start and end with sex, and not merely glance on casualties like Dorothy Stratten (and even the loveless Hef himself). The movie can’t seem to get it up.—Joshua Rothkopf
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