What do you think of when I say the name Hugh Hefner? Naked women, king-size living, a mansion teeming with luscious bodies and bunny ears?
Hugh Hefner who published Playboy magazine’s first issue in December 1953 and his fantastical life is the ultimate male fantasy. American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story, a ten-part series on Amazon Prime, gives us a guided tour of Hugh’s journey. But this is, as Shobhaa De’s autobiography was called, selective memory. The series has been produced by a production company owned by Playboy. It has been authorized by the 91-year-old Hef himself so you won’t find any warts or critique here. Hef is very clearly positioned as a visionary who rescued the repressed American populace by combining beautiful breasts with great writing.
I saw two episodes. The first had me hooked. The second, not so much. The narrative is a clunky mix of talking heads and stilted dramatic recreations. The writing and performances are serviceable rather than sparkling. I think the series works best for people who know little about Hef’s journey – like me.
The creation of the magazine is treated with an out-of-proportion wonder and gravitas but I was fascinated by the factoids. I had no idea that Hef worked with Esquire magazine but he quit because they wouldn’t give him a five-dollar raise, that Playboy was created with a 600-dollar investment and a tiny staff on Hef’s kitchen table and that the magazine’s first cover girl was Marilyn Monroe.
Director Richard Lopez had access to the magazine archives and 20, 000 hours of footage from Hef’s life and there are some fascinating clips. The real Hef shows up at regular intervals to underline what is important here – these are clips from interviews he did many years ago. At one point, he tells us that the editorial message of the Playboy brand was that sex was ok.
But sexual objectification and the commodification of women is as much a part of the brand’s DNA as sexual liberation. I hope later episodes address the downside of this empire and present the point of view of the women who were part of it. After all, what was it like to walk around half-naked, with a bunny tail attached to your rear end?
If you are looking for deeper insights or cultural commentary, then this won’t serve you. But American Playboy functions as an odd, intermittently engaging portrait of another time. Though I don’t get why this story had to be stretched over 10 episodes.