Hugh Hefner, the man who made Playboy magazine and, by extension, all that Playboy made — for better and worse — is the subject of a new 10-part documentary, "American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story," which premieres Friday on Amazon Prime. (Putting “American” at the start of any title is the current shortcut to gravitas.)
If we are to measure cultural weight by the length of the documentary of one's life, Hefner is about on par with O.J. Simpson, measured by "O.J. Simpson: Made in America,” and twice as important as Bob Dylan, judged by Martin Scorsese's "No Direction Home.”
That might be right, all told, though the running time of this summing-up may have something to do with the fact that it is produced in part by Playboy’s own Alta Loma Entertainment, makers also of “The Girls Next Door” and its several spinoffs. If not quite a hagiography, it is very much an official document — “my story, or at least how I remember it” — made with the participation of friends and family members and Playboy insiders young and old, all of whom feel obvious affection for the man, his magazine and his mission. This is evidently how Hef wants you to remember him.
And given that "American Playboy" is filled out, as with Bondo, by passages of dramatic re-creation, the series might easily be half its length, and twice as effective. The enacted sequences fill gaps in the story and have the benefit of letting us see “Hefner” — New Zealand actor Matt Whelan, screen-handsome and in need of a trim — brood or party, to furrow his brows in thought, light up in inspiration and, you shouldn’t wonder, have sex. As a narrator, assuming Hefner’s voice, Whelan is effective enough; but, as is the case with most such fish-and-fowl documentaries, the dramatic scenes, often without dialogue, lack depth and as often as not come off as corny.
The actual archival material, meanwhile, drawn from Hefner’s own archives — an accompanying press release says that his scrapbooks numbered more than 2,900, and it is pleasant to picture him of an evening, with scissors and glue pot, filling them in — is compelling. (“The 90-year-old Hefner has been deeply involved in the development and production of ‘American Playboy,’” we are further informed, “imbuing the series with rich first-person accounts and never-before-told stories.”) Old interview footage allows the hero his own voice. Still, these are mere clues to a character that, for all its long public presence, stays remote.
Whether “American Playboy” will bring the Real Hefner any more to light remains to be seen. ("You may think you know me, the guy who has it all, lavish mansion, legendary parties,” says Whelan-as-Hefner at the series’ start, allowing that "my lifestyle hasn't always been easy on the people closest to me … I've gained enemies and lost friends.") Only the first two episodes have been made available for review, and they don't get the story out of the 1950s. There are still the mansion(s), Bunnies, Barbi Benton, feminist critique, Bill Cosby and reality TV, with Hefner a wraith in perpetual pajamas, left to come. (Or not to come, as the case may turn out to be.)
For the moment, this is the story only partially of getting naked women into print; it begins as the story of getting anything into print, and is sometimes exciting in the way of other origin stories, as a team develops and a vision coheres and everything comes down to the wire. (Including a last-minute but fortuitous name change from Stag Party to Playboy, which necessitated a change of mascot from deer to rabbit and a lot of fiddly work with X-acto knives.) It’s also a story of young love, marriage, fatherhood and divorce, and of a shy young man coming out of his shell, in a big way.
There is the interesting suggestion that Playboy, apart from its contextualization of the pin-up, also represented a redefinition of masculinity. Apart from Esquire, which had grown temporarily temperamentally more conservative after the Second World War, "men's magazines" were all about hunting and fishing and brawny heroics; Playboy was for a man who might care about furniture — Hefner hocked his own, including Herman Miller and Charles Eames pieces, to help finance the magazine — or his clothes or wine or jazz or art; it was important to its founder that the magazine look good. That feels like the start of a profitable conversation, but there is a biopic to get on with.
Whatever you think about Hefner and his legacy, which mixed sexual liberation and sexual objectification and both shaped and serviced midcentury male fantasy in ways increasingly strange as the world moved on — though some would say not far enough — he has been an undeniable and singular influence on his age. Like his magazine, you can take him two ways, id or intellect. Playboy seems tame now, to be sure, given what is available at any moment a few mouse clicks away; indeed, the magazine briefly dispensed with the nudes, as if to say, “What’s the point?” But it is probably not done with us yet.
‘American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story’
Where: Amazon Prime
When: Anytime starting Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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