How high does the denigration of Hugh Hefner’s public image rank on your list of injustices in the world?

I’ll go out on a limb and assume somewhere below the next redesign of Facebook. True, the fabulously rich, connected founder of Playboy Magazine has been reduced in the public mind to a lecherous caricature, but nobody has helped cement that more than Hefner. In recent years, he’s welcomed reality TV cameras into his mansion to document a refusal, in his eighties, to act a day over thirty – still strutting around in his smoker’s jacket, still keeping company with models barely old enough to buy him pipe tobacco.

Yet, if you rent or stream the new documentary by Brigitte Berman, “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel,” you’ll see a twinkle in his eye when it comes to restoring some context and class to his name.

He and Berman don’t attempt this so much by arguing with the major (secular) criticism – that Hef’s empire was built not on sexual liberation, but confining female sexuality to a degrading ghetto. Oh, the critics are there in both new and archived interviews, but their presence is mostly decorative.

The main concern is soaking up the jazzy, intellectual and politically daring aura that once appeared to be Hefner’s major project. It started with a magazine famous for softcore smut, but he was focused on surrounding the nude pictorials with quality content, such as its notoriously cutting interviews and fiction.

And when things expanded into television and night clubs, he saw a duty in using his clout to help spur racial integration – not just having blacks and whites mingle on his syndicated “Playboy Penthouse” chat show, but going so far as to buy back Playboy clubs from franchise owners unwilling to break local segregation laws in the Jim Crow south.

Hell, it was Playboy that published the last essay penned by Martin Luther King Jr. before his assassination in 1968.

The film picks through these and other feathers in his cap, and also highlights the notorious personal warmth that’s earned him friends as unlikely as sixties folk icon Joan Baez and the evangelical pop singer Pat Boone.

This could easily be an exhausting two hours of salesmanship, but it isn’t, thanks to Berman’s ability to not simply rattle off bits of unheralded progressivism on Hef’s part, but express how it was all connected to his idea of forward thinking sophistication. The atmosphere of that vision is recreated using a trove of great old footage, photographs and music – and some thoughtful input from the requisite talking heads.

And like its subject, things get a lot more questionable toward the home stretch. Why the film extends its reach past the 1970’s is anybody’s guess, and that’s where its alliances turn it to fluff, either playing trite lip-service or ignoring any number of elephants that enter the room, from the scattered scandals to the steadily decreasing relevance of the magazine.

But as a closing argument on behalf of one of the twentieth century’s towering figures, it’s certainly effective. You might, I think, appreciate that even if you still find him to be guilty as sin.


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