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Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel (DVD Review)

6 Dec, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 12/7/10
Phase 4
Box Office $0.01 million
$29.99 DVD
Rated ‘R’ for graphic nudity and sexual content.

C’mon, now, let’s fight fair.

In one corner, we have Tony Bennett — extolling all that Playboy’s perennially pajama-ed publisher did for jazz and to advance hip music in general, which included putting black and blacklisted performers on his "Playboy’s Penthouse" and "Playboy After Dark" television shows in, respectively, the late 1950s and late 1960s. Hefner produced and syndicated them His Way, which included telling Southern syndicators to go sprinkle some Mail Pouch in their juleps when they tried to dictate guest-list skin tones.

Then in the other corner, we see Pat Boone sitting next to a wall of old album covers that probably equal the volume of records he’s sold (most likely to relatives) since 1962, when "Speedy Gonzales" went to No. 6. And in retaliation, Pat says … well, his mortifying comments are beyond Squaresville, as Sinatra used to say.

Actually, someone should tell Boone that Hefner is, if anything, regarded as quaint these days — which is probably why the director of an Oscar-winning documentary (Brigitte Berman of 1985’s Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got) lent her services to remind us of a few things that bear remembering. One is that in addition to jazz, Hefner is a longtime friend to civil rights, also to legal protections for married couples (not all that long ago, they could go to jail in all 50 states for breaking arcane sodomy laws) and even to film preservation. On hand to fortify the last point is George Lucas, who will do for an advocate in that field. Like Ted Turner if you can charitably forget his colorization slip-up, Hefner is one of the best friends film history has ever had.

On the other hand, if I were pioneer feminist and longtime Hefner adversary Susan Brownmiller (trotted out for the prosecution), I wouldn’t be crazy about this party, either — given the general unseemliness of women wearing bunny tails plus all the other baggage that goes with living a life around the Mansion pool. (This said, Dick Cavett repeats a story he’s told before about the time he finally got to go to the Playboy Mansion and the only person there he saw naked was Norman Mailer.) Trouble is, there’s no way you’re going to come off as anything but a noodge when rebutting funsters such as Bill Maher, Dick Gregory, Gene Simmons and Dr. Ruth Westheimer are having such a good time at the party, along with “Jimmy” Caan. You just can’t imagine Brownmiller on roller skates anywhere (or maybe they’re roller blades; I can’t remember what era the applicable footage included here is from), even leaving aside one of Hefner’s bashes.

If the clientele skews to the been-around side (Maher excepted), the copious archival material seems organized in state-of-the-art fashion. Decked out in his trademark sleepwear, Hefner takes us through what must be one of the largest scrapbook collections ever, which chronicle his battles against governmental iron hands of all kinds — including the post office, who initially treated him as if he were trying to peddle copies of Ulysses or Tropic of Cancer. There are also plentiful excerpts from those TV shows — which, as a couple DVD box sets have attested, hold up very well and, in fact, better than most variety shows of their respective eras. You’re never going to go too wrong with a jazz base.

The serious limitation here is a lack of real perspective: We’re never going to get a tough and reasoned screen debate about what the Playboy empire meant (mostly past tense — but what a run) until someone else other than its dominant player isn’t the key on-screen host. A corollary to this is this documentary’s déjà vu aspect. I know I’m not hallucinating about the existence of the startlingly similar Hugh Hefner: Once Upon a Time, Hugh Hefner: American Playboy and (to a lesser extent) The Bunny Years. They’re all sitting on the five video bookcases I have devoted to 20th-century histories of all kinds, the same place Activist and Rebel will go to make up a quartet. And to extend the swinger’s motif, probably not for bridge.

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