Honestly, I never thought much about Hugh Hefner or even Playboy until I got unexpectedly sucked in by the disarmingly fun The Girls Next Door reality show that aired on the E! Network from 2005 to 2010. Chronicling the lives of Hefner’s girlfriends Kendra Wilkinson, Bridget Marquardt and main squeeze Holly Madison, The Girls Next Door was more like a frivolous confection that flew in the face of the more sinister (and often ignorant) charges that have been levied at Hefner and his Playboy empire over the years.
It also introduced a different side of Hef, the one who loves classic movies and board games. I gave up on the show once the original cast of girlfriends moved on, but when I saw that the 2009 documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel had been added to Netflix Instant, I had just enough lingering interest to watch it. And I’m glad I did.
Beginning with Hef’s early life and the founding and rise of the magazine, the documentary spends much of its time focused on the 1950s and 1960s, when Hefner made waves not only for his centerfolds, but for his activism in the realms of civil rights and reproductive rights. We’ve all heard the line about men reading Playboy for the articles, but after seeing this doc, I think it might be true. Who knew the mag had been the first place to publish Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (in serial format) after publishers had rejected the work? In fact, the magazine has a long-standing literary tradition. And, on a lighter note, who knew mid-century Hef kind of resembled Don Draper?
Directed by Academy Award winner Brigitte Berman, the film includes lots of historical footage supplemented by interviews with George Lucas, Tony Bennett, James Caan, Joan Baez, the late Tony Curtis, Jesse Jackson and, of course, Hefner himself.
Whatever you think of Hugh Hefner today, you might just think differently after watching this documentary.
Check out the trailer.