Hef as in Hefner

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This lead paragraph in Steven Holden’s New York Times movie review (July 29, 2010) would likely turn most people off from seeing “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel,” but then again, give it a chance.

It doesn’t bode well that in the opening moments of Brigitte Berman’s doting, overlong hagiography, “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel,” the putative voice of God belongs to Gene Simmons, the smarmy, cynical leader of the rock band Kiss. Mr. Simmons remarks with a slight smirk that he doesn’t know any man who wouldn’t give his left testicle to be Mr. Hefner.

Okay, to quote one of the great comic chestnuts: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how’d you like the play?”

As Holden notes, the filmmaker’s decision to lead-off with Simmons was not the wisest. In fact, having him in the film at all is questionable, since the movie is largely about Hef’s role as a cultural provocateur and “activist.” I was entirely rapt by the predictable dichotomies that exist in Hefner’s career, but also by how true he was to liberal and humanist principles.

Granted the film is something of a Valentine to Hef, who comes off more saintly than devilish. But at the same time, despite the critiques by the morality-mongers Pat Boone and Jerry Falwell, and feminists, like Susan Brownmiller (who calls Hef “clever” but “dangerous”), testimony to his social and political courage is sounded by Jesse Jackson, Jim Brown, Dick Gregory, Tony Bennett, Pete Seeger, Bill Maher and even 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace (“I like him”), who skeptically interviewed him back in the 50s.

Founding art director, Art Paul, makes a brief appearance, along with a few other editors, but I would have enjoyed a bit more about the making of the magazine that had such an influence on my teenage years. Still, as epitaphs go – though Hefner is still “at the top of his game” – this was an interesting introduction to an American cultural pioneer and sexual revolutionary. Holden, however, has another opinion:

The movie ultimately makes a strong case for Mr. Hefner as a consistent and underappreciated champion of racial equality and sexual emancipation. But that emancipation had a dark side. There is simply no getting around the fact that Playboy, for all of Mr. Hefner’s assertions that it helped level the playing field in the battle of the sexes by affirming women’s right to pleasure, also objectified women as compliant, ornamental playthings. As for the man who invented it all, he remains a mystery in the film, living out his days in sybaritic bliss.

About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →