Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel: Like an Elegy for the Mad Men Era

The one thing no one—particularly its 84-year-old subject—wants to discuss in this very authorized, adulatory documentary is aging. Hugh Hefner made himself an icon, and Playboy a major American brand, by celebrating the pleasures of pert young flesh. But as we see in his interviews here, and in tributes from James Caan, Dick Gregory, Tony Bennett, and others, flesh will inevitably sag and decay. All the cocktails and cigarettes catch up to you in the end; all the failed marriages and one-night stands take their toll. Though the agenda for director Brigitte Berman is clearly to make Hef look good, to reel off his virtues (championing civil rights and free speech among them), there's something necessarily sad about the whole fawning infomercial. It's like an open-casket wake for the Mad Men era, 50 years later. The Eisenhower-age pleasures are long past, and there's no mention of the hardships to come—not just AIDS, but the ubiquity of free Internet porn and near-collapse of the entire magazine industry. And that, more than women, was Hef's true love: He launched Playboy after working at Esquire, and his own magazine achieved a paid circulation of 7 million by the '70s. Far from a den of iniquity, the first Playboy Mansion in Chicago allowed him to work around the clock, surrounded by page proofs, cartoons, and, yes, photos of half-naked women. Not a bad life. But, like our own sexual urges, not something that can be sustained forever.

 
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