"Hugh Hefner" and the creation of American manhood

An intriguing new film sings the praises of the Playboy revolutionary -- but only hints at the real story

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 30, 2010 12:30AM (EDT)

 (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)
(Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

Along with a vast cohort of American males raised between the 1950s and the 1980s, my budding sexuality -- and, even more so, my sense of what it meant to be a man -- was profoundly influenced by one Hugh Marston Hefner, scion of a conservative Chicago family with roots in Puritan New England. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is very much up for debate, although I think the only possible answer is that it's both.

Canadian director Brigitte Berman's fascinating documentary, "Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel," is a very mixed bag. Despite some faint gestures in the direction of journalistic balance, it plays a lot like a two-hour infomercial for the Playboy publisher's historical importance, philosophical depth and personal greatness. Yes, Hefner may have his flaws, or at least his quirks and peculiarities, the movie murmurs: So, too, did Lorenzo de' Medici!

But here's the thing: Hefner really is an immensely important figure in the cultural history of the 20th century, both for obvious reasons and much less obvious ones. And as friend-of-Hef Dr. Ruth Westheimer observes in the film, the cartoon version of himself that he created from the mid-'70s onward, surrounded by a featureless human landscape of scientifically enhanced blond cyborgs, almost totally obscured what had once made him seem both genuine and significant.

Curiously, Berman spends little time -- and by "little" I mean none -- exploring the mechanics or aesthetics or cultural clout of the Playboy centerfold, which is the meat in the sandwich of masculine signifiers Hefner has been selling his readers for 50-odd years. OK, there is one brief scene in which Hef discusses his original mid-'50s conception for the monthly pictorial: The corn-fed girl next door has doffed her clothes for you, to reveal both her implausibly brick-house-ian proportions and the fact that she actually likes sex without looking like a slut or a professional. At first, there were suggestions of a male presence: a dark-suited silhouette in the background, or a Van Heusen-clad arm extending a lighter. (This was quickly dropped.)

By the standards of stuff you can see within two or three clicks of this page, those early Playboy pictorials seem impossibly innocent. They barely qualify as erotic and not at all as pornographic. The young women positively radiate good health and postwar American optimism, which drove Hefner's critics crazy. There was no complication or hint of darkness in the vision of sexuality presented in those pages, no indication that we were all sinners paying for Eve's fall and -- most strikingly to contemporary eyes -- no hint of the jaded, soul-eating boredom that drives today's porn into ever more baroque varieties of debasement.

I haven't studied this question in detail, but I bet you could find a moment in Playboy history, sometime around Hefner's early-'70s move from Chicago to Los Angeles, when the wholesome American girl archetype began to give way to the pneumatic, radioactive, tennis-sock-wearing and increasingly ghoulish blondes who have inhabited the magazine, and Hef's boudoir, ever since. One needs to blend quotes from Karl Marx and the Bible to capture the meaning of that shift: It's as if the mask of history is ripped off, and now we see it face to face. (And its name is Kandace.)

Hefner's near-naked pictures were revolutionary in the '50s, no doubt about it -- but in a specific and limited way. There was no subjectivity to those girls, who were lovely in an almost identical style. Like they used to say about Miss America, Miss October was "the symbol of all we possess." You, the reader, were of course supposed to be the bon vivant who had so impressed this young lady that she was now, for some reason, standing in the empty bathtub wearing only a fuzzy cardigan and high heels. And just to prove -- to her? to yourself? -- that you weren't some small-minded creep only interested in what happened between the sheets, she came wrapped in 18,000 words by Norman Mailer, or a conversation between Alex Haley and Malcolm X.

Viewed from several decades' distance, the whole package doesn't seem to fit together too well: Are we supposed to believe that this wholesome secretarial-school nubile cares what you read, or buys into the whole proto-metrosexual Playboy package of jazz, modern art, cologne, tailored suits, high-octane automobiles and friendship with Negroes? No; like those things, she was an accoutrement, a lifestyle accessory. She brought with her a specific and ego-critical form of gratification, but it wasn't the only important kind.

It wasn't entirely fair of '60s feminists to insist that Playboy was hostile to female pleasure or female desire, and it was clearly ludicrous to claim that no women found the Hefner vision of masculinity attractive. (One does not have to approve of the objectification of women to notice that some women, some of the time, enjoy it.) Satisfying your woman, sexually and otherwise, was absolutely part of the Playboy self-conception, but she was always a second-class citizen in that universe. The idea that she might want to be the protagonist of her own universe, as vast and mythic and fueled with mysterious desire as that of Playboy, would never have occurred to Hugh Hefner, or pretty much any other American man of the time.

Although the concept of branding hadn't really been invented when Hefner launched Playboy in 1953, he created one of the most potent brands in the history of media, one that dramatically reshaped Americans' ideas about sex, men and women. As Berman takes great pains to note, he hitched that brand to a wide variety of social issues and causes, from racial integration to freedom of expression to antiwar activism to repealing antediluvian sex laws to contraception and abortion. His philosophical convictions and literary interests were completely genuine, and whatever criticism one may have of Hefner's sexual politics on a symbolic level, he has been a lifelong supporter of full legal equality for women and gay people. (Along with a universe of female partners that outnumbers the sands upon the Red Sea shore, Hefner has admitted to some same-sex experimentation.)

In largely ignoring the main reason why Hefner built a multimillion-dollar publishing empire -- and then saw it dwindle away in the era of videotapes, DVDs and the Internet -- Berman runs the risk of missing the main story about him and Playboy and why they're important. The only anti-Hefner voices heard in the film are feminist author Susan Brownmiller and Christian entertainer Pat Boone, both on hand to dredge up groan-inducing arguments from yesteryear. (Respectively: Nudie pics are inherently demeaning to women, and they undermine the godly moral fiber of our nation.) The legendary debauchery and pseudo-messianic culture of Hef's L.A. mansion in the late '70s and early '80s is never discussed, and the 1980 murder of Playmate Dorothy Stratten -- fictionalized in the film "Star 80" -- appears as an isolated event, not a symbol of some deeper dysfunction.

But this avowedly pro-Hef film, which relies mainly on interviews with the octogenarian rake and his closest friends and co-workers, does get you thinking, which is one of the best things any documentary can do. Berman's clips from Hefner's 1959-60 TV show, "Playboy's Penthouse," made me realize how important he was in pioneering a specific kind of late-night television coolness. His intros are mini-masterpieces of studied casualness, in which Hefner appears to notice the POV-camera entering from the elevator, and weaving through the already-swinging party. "Oh, hello," he says, gradually disengaging from his voluptuous partner. "I didn't see you come in. We were dancing. Grab a drink!" Josh White will be along a little later, or Pete Seeger, followed by a very funny young fellow from New York called Lenny Bruce. Have you heard of him?

Hefner's unfazed on-screen demeanor anticipated David Letterman by more than 20 years, and made Johnny Carson look like the repressed Nebraska square he was. He was more daring and serious than either, hosting mixed-race dance parties with blacklisted Communists -- and telling the proprietors of outraged Southern stations where they could stick it. (The show was self-produced, self-syndicated and beholden to no one.) As silly and gendered as his boy-fantasy sexual revolution looks in the rear-view mirror, it both sparked and signaled a prodigious sea change in American mores. Watching this lean, handsome, pipe-smoking kid match wits with the prudish Mike Wallace (and wipe him out) or talk racial politics with Dizzy Gillespie, I feel the allure of what he created even now.

But all revolutionaries run up against the limits of their imaginations at some point. Lenin imagined a workers' paradise, and instead handed off his newborn totalitarian state to a murderous monster. Hefner's legacy is more complicated: He helped create a world in which white people by the millions were willing to vote for Barack Hussein Obama, and one in which all teenagers have not merely heard of anal intercourse but have seen it performed. By midgets. In Croatia. He dreamed of a nation set free from generations of Puritanical repression. But American freedom so often degenerates into slimy Burger King self-parody, covered with dubious condiments. Now Hugh Hefner is an 80-something dude in pajamas who until recently cohabited with identical twins named Karissa and Kristina. They're 36 years younger than -- heavens, no, not than Hef himself. They're 36 years younger than his daughter.

"Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel" is now playing in New York, Los Angeles and Washington. It opens Aug. 6 in San Diego and Toronto; Aug. 13 in Boston, Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal and Philadelphia; Aug. 20 in Denver, St. Louis, San Francisco and Vancouver; Aug. 27 in Chicago; Sept. 10 in Atlanta; and Sept. 17 in Seattle, with more cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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