Sunday, April 9, 2017

Hefner Rising: The Playboy Story

Amazon has just released American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story, a ten episode series about Hefner and the magazine he founded in 1953. Playboy was profitable from its first issue and gave birth to one of the most recognizable brands in the world. I encountered Playboy sometime in the early 1960s, during my teen years, and read it regularly for a decade or more and I do mean “read.” Yes, I looked at the pictures, of course I looked at the pictures, but I really did read it, for there was much to read, especially the interviews.

The series has been assembled from documentary materials, including footage, clippings, and photos from Hefner’s archive, testimonials from former executives and associates, including Christie Hefner and Jesse Jackson, and dramatic reenactments. The reenactments are OK, but no more. It’s the story itself that’s fascinating. It’s told from Hefner’s obviously biased point of view, but there’s no secret about that. You might want to counterpoint it with, say, Mad Men, which is set among the men at the center of the Playboy target demographic. Did Don Draper read playboy? What about the one who smoked a pipe (Ken?), did he get the idea from Hef?

The series is densest over the magazine’s first quarter century, which is fine, as that’s where the most action is. Hefner’s original conception was simply a men’s lifestyle magazine, advice to the male consumer: no more, but no less¬–which is to say, pictures of naked women were central. Out of and in addition to that came liberal editorial content. The magazine had to defend itself, editorially and in court. So censorship became an issue.

Hefner the liked jazz. The sophisticated man liked jazz. So Miles Davis became the subject of the first Playboy interview. When Hefner wanted Nat Cole and Ella Fitzgerald on his first television show, TV stations in the South said the wouldn’t air the show. He called their bluff; it turns out they weren’t bluffing, but the show did fine anyhow. Civil Rights entered Playboy’s editorial portfolio, including interviews with Martin Luther King and Malcolm C. Then the war in Vietnam – Playboy was against it, but was happy to entertain the troops – women’s rights, and then AIDS.

Yes, one of the episodes deals with feminist criticism, including footage from a 1970 Dick Cavett show where Susan Brownmiller and Sally Kempton handed him his head. We also learn of Gloria Steinem’s undercover exposé of working conditions at the New York Playboy Club. Obviously, though, if feminist critique is what you want, this series is not the place for it. You might, as an exercise, ask yourself how Mad Men’s Peggy Olson would have fared working at Playboy. That’s a tricky one. To be sure, Christie Hefner took over in 1988 and ran the company until 2009, two decades after the period covered in Mad Men. If she had gone to work for Hef in 1963?

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On the whole the series seems a bit long for the material it covers. But that material is worthwhile as social history, for the overview of the phenomena that followed from the desire to read a magazine with picture of naked women. And the archival material is at the center of it all.

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