Thursday, July 29, 2010

Brigitte Berman's HUGH HEFNER bio-doc succeeds (pretty much in spite of itself)

Extremely enter-
taining: That's the first thing to be said about the new documentary HUGH HEFNER: PLAYBOY, ACTIVIST AND REBEL (other than what a hyped-up mouthful that title is). German-born film-
maker Brigitte Berman (shown just below) has whipped together quite a mix of past & present, using terrific histo-
rical footage of the young Hefner, his early magazine work and especially the at-home-with-Hef TV show that was supposedly shot in his penthouse apartment atop the Chicago Playboy Club (two photos below).  There is so much here of interest -- about the time periods (the 1950s through the present) and American attitudes toward culture, race, religion and sex -- that this easily trumps Hefner himself.  Despite (or maybe because of) Berman's seeming to lavish him with the praise of so many of the interviewees she has chosen, this billionaire playboy swinger still comes off as a one-dimensional boychick who never grew up.

I admit to knowing little, prior to viewing Berman's film, about all the agitating for social justice that Playboy's own playboy managed to engage in over his nearly sixty-year career (he's now 84): fighting against censorship and for sexual freedom while knocking down racial barriers.  Of course, most of this was done in the course of fighting to keep his magazine and sex empire alive and prosperous, but so what? Healthy self-interest has often been part of positive social change.

Yet, although the man claims to love women (and has always had a posse of beautiful hangers-on to prove it), no thinking person can come away from this movie without seeing how sexist Hefner and his magazine, clubs and mansion all are.  Or were.  I think only one of the clubs now remains -- in Las Vegas, 'natch, which pretty much makes up the "cultural" center of our great nation.

En route during this lengthy movie (it runs over two hours, including end credits), we meet Hef's grown daugh-
ter, visit the early days of his first marriage (and just what did happen to that first wife, who simply disappears along the way?), see him grow from a smart drone for other people's publishing ventures (he began his career at a children's magazine: yikes!) into the man who founded an entire publishing genre that is still going strong.  We hear and see friends and performers -- from Tony Bennett to Sammy Davis, Jr. (below, performing on Hef's TV show), Joan Baez to Gene Simmons (will he ever take off those dark glasses?  You'll find out); from a couple of women who still remain unconvinced of his sexual sainthood (how dare they?), Susan Brownmiller (two photos below) and Gloria Steinem. The former gets some licks in, but the latter is relegated to only a mention -- this, after her ground-breaking story of  how she posed as a Playboy Bunny!

We learn of Hef's adorable and devoted secretary, Bobbie Arnstein, whom the government appears to have harrassed into suicide, and another tale about the Vietnamese war orphans that he and his "bunnies" rescued via the official Playboy airplane.  And did you know that Mr. Hefner once received the NAACP Image Award?  Neither did I.

Yes, Dorothy Stratten (below) makes an appearance -- which has me wanting to see again the under-rated, oddball Peter Bogdanovitch movie They All Laughed -- and we hear from a few of Hefner's ladies, with enough not-quite-nasty little barbs that add to the "geriatric Peter Pan" image of this man that Berman continues to build throughout.  Former playmate and sex goddess Shannon Tweed tells of her time with Hef, who simply keeps moving from young woman to young woman to young woman.  "I don't share well," Tweed says succinctly.

Toward the finale Dr. Ruth, clearly a longtime friend and fan, tells us, "People don't take Hefner seriously."  Well, yes.  Someone else mentions that "Love is his 'Rosebud',"  and though we get the Citizen Kane reference, what the hell does that silly statement actually mean?  It finally becomes so clear that this man is simply clueless on a certain human level that this calls into question everything that Ms Berman has done.  And yet, maybe not.  Can it be that the director does not herself already realize this?  It is almost easier to believe that she knows damn well what a fake (in some ways) Hefner is and so, in order to complete the documentary and keep in his good graces, she plays by his rules, while showing us, not so much the conflicting evidence, but instead piling on the good stuff to the point to which it all begins to seem suspect. Most intelligent viewers will easily be able to read between the lines and make their own judgment, though it may take awhile (the film and its events are just so interesting!) before this realization kicks in.

In any case, the end credits sequence is a must-see, revealing a great sense of humor on the part of the director, along with further sophistication and understanding.  So don't leave before the entire film is over.

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, from Phase 4 Films, opens Friday, July 30, in New York City at the Angelika Film Center.  And perhaps elsewhere, now or later -- though I have not been able to ascertain any details because Phase 4's website is rather paltry.

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