BOOB TUBE

Hugh Hefner Doc ‘American Playboy’ Lionizes the Man Behind the Boobs

The new documentary series American Playboy about the life of Hugh Hefner is nothing more than one big, baffling puff of smoke up a silk pajama-wearing mogul’s very rich rear.

Dan Tuffs/Getty

American Playboy is the sprawling, 10-hour inspirational story of the unlikely rise of a titty magazine and its maestro of bazoongas.

The documentary-drama hybrid, which across 10 episodes purports to chronicle the inception and ensuing six decades of success of Playboy, is billed by Amazon, which premieres the series Friday, as “the authorized story of Hugh Hefner.”

While Hefner granted the filmmakers access to his record-setting personal scrapbook and Playboy archives, he did not himself grant interviews for the documentary. Presumably because the 91-year-old lothario was busy convalescing from traumatic injuries sustained while having this much smoke blown up his ass.

Ambitious documentaries examining pop culture lightning rods are all the rage these days—the success of O.J.: Made in America certainly attests to that. But American Playboy, with full participation of Playboy’s original staff down to multiple appearances from Hefner’s son, Cooper, who currently runs the enterprise, is hardly a parsing, probing, or even all that insightful look at the phenomenon.

“You may think you know me,” says the actor Matt Whelan, who portrays a younger version of Hefner in I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant-esque dramatizations of the man’s life. “A guy who has it all, lavish mansion, legendary parties, and of course the women.”

A person who has ever watched television might assume that the ensuing series would set out to alter that perception. Confusingly, the series doesn’t seem to care to.

It can (clearly) be hard to divorce yourself from your opinion of Hefner and the magazine while watching the series. But that is American Playboy’s biggest downfall. Its examination of the events and of Hefner itself is so transparently revisionist and positive, at least in the two episodes given to critics to screen, that you don’t feel compelled to open your mind at all.

There’s an amazing story to tell here: A magazine that was an overnight sensation and has been at the center of culture wars ever since. What makes the person behind that tick? What has being alternately hailed a hero and branded a peddler of smut done to that person’s psyche?

Playboy has, after all, been at the forefront of progressive and exhilarating journalism for as long as it’s been parading its tatas.

“My magazine wasn’t just about naked women,” creepy Fake Hefner actor says. “It was breaking down barriers, starting a cultural conversation about sexuality, and standing up for social justice.”

Like the magazine, American Playboy attempts to tell an edgy and interesting cultural story—the story behind this legendary figure and brand—but, should there be any concern that you’re watching the docuseries “for the articles,” it takes no less than 45 seconds for boobs to show up. And they never go away.

They appear in archival footage. They appear in recreated scenes of that archival footage, with actresses stripping down themselves. They appear in sex scenes that are for some reason dramatized. It’s just the ladies, of course. Fake Hef never bares a bun.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

It makes it increasingly difficult to take seriously the series’ mission statement, that Hefner was a cultural crusader, not a pornographer—even if that’s a notion that merits being explored. In fact, it’s the veritable chorus of the series, with Cooper Hefner reiterating at multiple points that “the conception of Playboy came from dad’s irritation with the status quo.”

We get to know a young Hugh Hefner, a simple guy who liked drawing cartoons whose life was changed when he discovered Esquire and 1948’s Kinsey report on American sexuality. Invigorated by the report, he started writing about sexual oppression for the humor magazine Shaft while attending the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. His then-girlfriend shared his views, and they finally slept together when Hefner was 22.

They eventually marry and Hefner finds himself working at a publishing house, wallowing in a life of conformity. It’s not until Hefner cheats on his wife with a woman he meets at a bar that he is able to tap into his creative genius. Literally, it’s depicted as if he orgasms a “eureka!”

“It sparked something in me,” Fake Hefner says, as the show continues to glamorize his affair. He decided to create his own magazine.

The inception and evolution is legitimately fascinating. Recalling the germs of genius that led to the magazine’s success are the series’ strongest moments.

How a copyright infringement threat from a hunting magazine caused Hefner to change the name from Stag Party to Playboy with just a week to go before his publishing deadline. (It’s named after an automobile company in Buffalo.) How Hefner stumbled upon the Marilyn Monroe nude photos that would feature on its first cover and cause the magazine to fly off the shelves. How an office romance led to the “Girl Next Door” centerfolds that ended up setting the magazine apart from other nudie rags and ultimately defining its brand.

The archival clips of Hefner himself discussing these moments, his goals for the magazine—to appeal to the interests of men with the editorial message that sex was OK—and his reaction to criticisms have real bite and insight. They essentially nullify the narration by Fake Hefner, which essentially repeats what Hefner says but more broadly and generically, with no seeming purpose other than to bloat the running time and glorify the man.

In addition to Playboy employees involved in its creation, an eclectic group of talking heads including Bill Maher, Brett Ratner, and Jesse Jackson give testimonials.

“No other magazine was like Playboy because they had the nudity, which was tasteful as they always said. But then they had an interview with Norman Mailer,” Maher says. But should you be concerned that someone was on the verge of making a valid point, he continues: “It was definitely about fantasy. I depended on Playboy magazine to release most of the sperm in my body.”

The two episodes available to critics are still stuck in the ’50s. Presumably, talk of the mansion, forays into actual pornography, the Playboy Bunnies, the 1963 arrest for obscenity, the culture war he provided the ammunition for, and the evolution into mythical silk-pajama’d senior citizen are still to come.

Maybe, freed from the “humble beginnings as a little ole magazine created in a Chicago apartment for no money” narrative, those points in the Playboy narrative will afford the series opportunity for a more discerning telling of history. Because as it stands, American Playboy serves no greater purpose than to paint its subject a nipple-freeing cultural hero.

I have no use for this artificial, ahem, enhancement of Hefner’s life and accomplishments. Always been more turned on by the real thing myself.

Correction 4/7/17: An earlier version of this article stated that Playboy is named after an automobile company in Detroit. It was based in Buffalo.