Looking more like a seasoned Maurice Chevalier or elder statesman than Bathrobe Erectus, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner received a standing ovation at the Gene Siskel Film Center at the screening of Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel this weekend.
The movie, directed by Brigitte Berman, is the latest to chronicle Chicago history at the Art Institute’s new film center. Earlier this year, Disturbing the Universe about Chicago 8 lawyer extraordinaire William Kunstler was shown and last year Radical Disciple: The Story of Father Pfleger was screened, attended by Chicago’s second most famous son, David Axelrod.
Anyone who grew up before Reagan, in Chicago or both will delight at the forgotten cultural icons director Brigitte Berman revives: Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr., William F. Buckley, Dick Cavett, David Steinberg and many more.
TV clips from “hifi, party record and hootenanny” days on Playboy’s Penthouse and Playboy After Dark feature folk singers Pete Seeger and Joan Baez.
Who knew Playboy sponsored one of the biggest jazz festivals in history? Who knew it sent the Playboy jet to retrieve Vietnam orphans who bunnies, out of costume, nurtured back to health? Who knew Playboy supported Children of the Night, a group that helps runaways evade prostitution or that Hef went to Northwestern?
But halfway through the movie, a creep factor sets in. Maybe it is the parade of dead talking heads presented as if they were alive — Alex Haley, Robert Culp, Tony Curtis — or the fact that Hef wannabe Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione just died.
Maybe it was the ubiquity of Kiss’ Gene Simmons — so sexually and psychiatrically unbalanced that an NPR interview in which he tells interviewer Terry Gross to “open your legs” went viral — or the appearance of a leering James Caan who was linked to Hollywood prostitute broker Heidi Fleiss. (At the film’s end, Simmons who pontificates about male sexual parts being aroused by clothing while women’s are hidden away, removes the sunglasses he wears during the film in a gesture of grandiosity and symbolic exhibitionism. Ick.)
But the straw dog enemies of lust director Berman sets up — Pat Boone, Jerry Falwell, Charles Keating — are not nearly as creepy as those who are agnostic on, or supporters of, Hef style lust.
What is, for example, the Rev. Malcolm Boyd, author of Are Your Running With Me Jesus, doing at an establishment where half the sky, as Nicholas Kristof puts it, is deemed worthy of wearing animal tails? Where have Dick Cavett and David Steinberg been for the last 30 years to not notice that Oprah, Chelsea Handler and the women on the View have retired them? And what is up with Bill Maher’s appearance?
In fact Hef’s pride in liberating African-American men to enjoy cottontail service at the segregated New Orleans Playboy Club and the movie’s discussion of his fight against “oppression” and “sexual McCarthyism” is so Denial it brings to mind a scene in Sacha Baron Cohen Bruno last year. Cohen invites the singer Paula Abdul, who has arrived for an interview, to use a Mexican gardener on his hands and knees as a chair — and she does!
Everything is fine if you ignore the furniture.
An admitted sex, Dex, Pepsi and work addict, Hefner has the self-centeredness, grandiosity and resentments sometimes called King Baby. He deserved seven girlfriends because he had been monogamous for eight years. The death of playmate Dorothy Stratten gave him his stroke — it was a “miracle” he got through — and the suicide of bunny Bobbie Arnstein was caused by drug officials and hurt the brand.
While Hefner is admired as much for his business acumen as lifestyle, he fails to see that laddie magazines on the one hand and cable and cyber porn on the other retired his brand and still blames Former Attorney General under Ronald Reagan Edwin Meese for casting Playboy as obscene and its circulation nosedive. (Hef went hard core in 2001 over the objections of daughter Christie, CEO of Playboy Enterprises, who told the Daily Telegraph as a “feminist” she would not take the magazine hard core.)
Of course the half the sky who became doctors, judges, senators, astronauts, scientists, secretaries of state and magazine publishers also helped retire the brand along and a backlash against commodification capitalism and mindless consumerism.
In fact when asked flat out about Playboy treating women as sexual objects and animals, Hef at 84, stands by the brand and say it is because they are. And the Playboy brand stands as a White Boy’s Club that decided to left men from other races in.
MARTHA ROSENBERG can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org