For most people, the term “playboy” is synonymous with a dissolute lifestyle devoted to the pursuit of pleasure. And no man has done more to reinforce this association than Hugh Hefner, the publisher of the eponymous magazine that became a worldwide sensation for featuring scantily clad women in its centerfold.
The new Amazon series, American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story, recounts the growth of the magazine and the concomitant rise of Hefner, from an unsung copywriter in Chicago to the owner of multiple media properties, casinos, clubs and mansions spread across the globe. Over the course of a half century, Playboy rose to great heights before being buffeted by the digital revolution, but its founder has remained an enigmatic figure.
No more. Following the cue of more serious documentaries such as OJ Simpson: Made in America, American Playboy dramatises Hefner’s life by presenting the choices before him and the decisions he took as part of a grand narrative. But the comparison ends there. There is little by way of content or technique to put American Playboy in the same league as the Simpson documentary.
First, the format. Even for a story that claims greater credit for its protagonist than is due, a straightforward fictional treatment might have excited some interest. What we have, on the other hand, is a confusing mix of fact and fictionalisation. Hefner is played by Matt Whelan, a little-known actor with intense expressions and brooding eyes. Were he to solitarily helm the series,it may have grasped the heft it clearly aims for. But just as we are settling into the fictional bits, the real Hefner intrudes, expatiating on what a piece of work he is. It doesn’t help when the real you is less likeable than the actor playing you.
Part-produced by Playboy’s own Alta Loma Entertainment, the series is an unabashed tribute to Hefner, a widely successful media mogul, to be sure, but nowhere close to the icon he is painted as. Long episodes train an indulgent eye on his many triumphs, from throwing the best-attended parties in town to coming up with the iconic dress sported by Playboy bunnies, female servers at Hefner’s clubs.
What is worse, the series portrays him as a man with a moral calling to remake America in his image – an Eden of sexual openness. We are repeatedly treated to gratuitous narrations of how Hefner railed against the stifling ethos of the 1950s and singlehandedly ushered a more open, a more sexually frank, and therefore, a better America. Only towards the end does the series nod at the less salubrious outcomes of this megalomania, but by then the viewer is already drowning in the vast, unedited river of Hefner worship.
For all that though, one cannot help notice how lucky the man is. Everything he touched turned to gold, even when the new businesses had little to do with his expertise in running a media operation. Hefner’s, then, is the quintessential American story, of a man who slickly brought his ideas to fruition and repackaged his success as an incredible tale of guts and glory.