Bunnies, breasts and longform journalism
'American Playboy' looks at how Hugh Hefner changed the world
Hugh Hefner produced the first Monty Python film.
Anyone who can back that most legendary and most absurd of comedy troupes—while also making the time to revolutionise journalism—is a character worth romanticising. This is done rather reverentially in Amazon’s latest series, American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story, a clunky but engrossing mix of dramatic recreation and documentary footage. This is a show made with the full cooperation of Hefner and the Playboy estate, which is why those hunting for journalistic probing and insightful critiquing of Hefner’s bathrobe’d legacy will be sorely disappointed: this is autobiography, not exposé.
As a result, the show paints Hefner as a remarkably insightful and sincere man of genius, a committed thinker and a man who falls faultlessly into affairs even as all women melt around him, unable to resist his charms. We see him as a driven young man, putting together the most successful magazine in the world, and we see him as an obsessive perfectionist, making sure the bunny costume is just right. Yet, thanks to the recorded Hefner voiceovers and his constant lionisation by talking heads—most of whom he either employs or has fathered—it is more than clear that, like the show’s very first voiceover promises, this show has a voice, and it is that of its subject. “This is my story," narrates the actor standing in for Hef. “Or at least how I remember it."
However, even if you were to cynically strip these narrative claims bare and come up with a sordid tale of greed and exploitation, the naked facts are remarkable. Even a cursory glance at early Playboy covers is enough to be struck by the magazine’s dizzying ambition: the fact that it wanted to feature Lolita-esque girls while getting Vladimir Nabokov to write fiction. The aesthetics. The politics. The modernity. The cheekiness. The progressiveness. The personality. The glorious, glorious interviews—The Playboy Interview, to this date kicking off with three portraits of the subject, arranged like polaroids in a lineup, spread across far more pages than any popular magazine dare grant. Unashamedly a nudie magazine, in its heyday Playboy truly was a thing of beauty. And anyone interested in writing, culture, America, and in journalism itself would do well to dive into archives and—to invoke the sniggered-at cliché—read it for the articles.
This is also, appropriately enough, the Amazon show that shows how permissively ahead the network has come since I last ranted about its self-censorship when it launched. What better — and more sexually explicit — way to open up the floodgates than with a show about Hefner, who categorically refused to back down from boundaries? Fiercely opposed to segregation, Hefner took on hostile television networks by featuring musical legends Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald on his first show, his magazine breaking ground by featuring the first African-American Playmate, and even running the longest ever interview with Dr Martin Luther King. More than the American Dream, Hefner is a propulsive embodiment of the American Drive.
It is a story that prizes attention to detail above all else. And as I gulped it down, I found myself thoroughly tickled by the way the show features elderly people who used to be playmates and playboys, talking about the past with a grandparental affection. Charlaine Karalus—a lovely woman who went from Playboy’s subscription department to becoming one of the magazine’s most popular playmates under the pseudonym Janet Pilgrim—is, for instance, now 82, and speaks of her early shoots in the fond manner a great-aunt might use for a memorable wedding feast. It is also a delight to see Victor Lownes, a dashing young man who was an inspiration for the Playboy lifestyle, to sit back and chuckle unashamedly about hiring Bunnies, looking now like Ruskin Bond.
The series itself isn’t particularly well-written or performed. The actor who plays Hef is just about okay, but the female actresses are well chosen—frequently striking, yes, but also visibly bright and full of character. Most of the performing is done by the documentary footage, which is amazing, but undone by the repetitive voiceovers. In a bid to flaunt all the great footage, the show’s narrative keeps circling back to what we’ve already been shown and told, underlining things we haven’t had a chance to forget. Despite all that, I would rate the show both fascinating and highly addictive—like a really, really good tabloid.
Like him or not, Hugh Hefner stood alone and changed the world around him. As with the Monty Python film, he saw everything there was and was inspired enough to say “And Now For Something Completely Different." Storytellers deserve a shot at controlling their own story, and while this could have been a better show—a fantastic, tight four-hour series, even—it still works. Hefner’s version of his own story is worthy of a viewing, and American Playboy makes for a satisfying and eye-opening—if occasionally gratuitous—binge. Take the trip. Follow the black rabbit.