Saturday, September 12, 2009

TIFF 2009: Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

Hef with the director Brigitte Berman

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel
directed by Brigitte Berman (Canada, 2009) 135 minutes at the Elgin Theatre

Perhaps Dumb and Dumber in front of me (who actually necked periodically during the film and then when Dumber was bored she started to text) were as surprised as I was regarding the content of this doc. Not just cheesecake, bunnies and the Playboy Mansion ... substantially more; hence, their boredom I presume.

Hefner, loathe him or like him (and I am somewhere in the middle), was instrumental in tearing down sexual and racial taboos in the 50s and 60s. The concept that good girls liked sex was a novel and startling concept then.

In the film he comes across as lucid and articulate if a bit frail. He is after all 83 now. It is respectful and detailed in chronicling his early interest in liberating men from what he perceived as repressive 50s mores and then segueing into attempts to promote racial integration on his Playboy television shows, supporting the rights of blacks and those he believed to be unjustly imprisoned, even support for the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion rights and film preservation.

As the TIFF program description states: "When some Playboy clubs in the southern United States would not let black patrons in, Hefner used his own money to buy the franchises back from their owners, ensuring that institutions bearing the Playboy name would be racially integrated."

Okay, there are the inevitable dimwits like James Caan defending Hefner and yapping about the Playboy Mansion but then there is also a long list of people I like and respect: filmmaker George Lucas, Dick Cavett, comedian Bill Maher, comedian David Steinberg, politico Jesse Jackson, comedian Dick Gregory ... it's a long list.

His critics come across as fussy, humorless and prudish. I have always found the intersection of radical feminism and right wing conservatism a dangerous place to be. Do I really want to be on the side of Christian crooner Pat Boone even if he and feminist icon Susan Brownmiller occupy the same moral ground? No, I do not.

Eliot Spitzer, no stranger to sexual shenanigans and perceived moral turpitude, once said that his obituary is already written. The same may be true for Hefner. Someone made an interesting statement in the film saying that none of her colleagues would take Hefner seriously no matter what he had done in the past in the way of political activism because, unfortunately, he has mixed his mission for the freeing of male and female sexuality with his personal life.

We may not remember his struggles to protect First Amendment rights for Americans or his civil rights activism for racial integration or prisoners. All we may be left with is the image of a frail octogenarian trying to juggle seven interchangeable blonde playmates and the magazine. Is that the primary legacy he wants to leave? Perhaps it is.

Minor TIFF of the day: Finding myself defending Hefner's probable sincerity as a political activist to the husband on our date night. Arrggghh. Who'd have thought it possible?

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