Despite its release under the Lynch/Frost banner, this feature-length documentary on the founder of Playboy magazine, on its surface at least, is a surprisingly tame affair that seems to gloss over the controversies and turmoil surrounding its subject. A closer look, however, reveals that
HUGH HEFNER: ONCE UPON A TIME works in mysterious ways.
Expanded from a segment of David Lynch and Mark Frost's failed documentary series for the Fox network, "American Chronicles," HUGH HEFNER: ONCE UPON A TIME maintains an almost obsessive focus on its subject whose story, for better or worse, has become part of American lore. A struggling copywriter
and failed cartoonist, Hefner and a partner started Playboy--oddly enough while Hefner worked for a children's magazine publisher to make ends meet--on a wing and a prayer in 1953. He also had a little bit of luck by including a now-famous nude calendar photo of Marilyn Monroe just as she was
becoming the nation's top box-office draw.
That first issue, which carried no date because Hefner wasn't sure he'd ever publish another, sold a respectable 50,000 copies. Not missing the lesson of the Monroe photo, Hefner developed the Playboy formula of hedonism in its lifestyle features and an adventurous liberal bent in its news and
fiction editorial. But what propelled it into popularity and notoriety was its photo spreads featuring nude, nubile girls next door, the Playboy Playmates.
By 1971, Playboy's circulation had reached seven million. Nine hundred thousand keyholders patronized the international string of night clubs and resorts spawned by the magazine's success and Hefner was poised to conquer Atlantic City with a $130 million casino. But a series of scandals, setbacks
and changes in society eroded the empire in the next decade. Battered but unbeaten, Playboy survived into the 80s largely because Hefner turned over the reins to his daughter by his first marriage, Christie Hefner, a canny businesswoman who aggressively downsized the organization, shedding its
clubs and other unrelated businesses, while at the same time overseeing its generally successful expansion into home video and pay TV.
After suffering a stroke in 1985, Hefner downsized his own life, dropping out of the day-to-day running of the corporation and marrying 1989 Playmate of the Year Kimberley Conrad. Made with the cooperation of its subject, HUGH HEFNER: ONCE UPON A TIME carries no startling new revelations either
about the man or his empire. What it does have is a finely tuned sense of Hefner's story as a uniquely American tale about the infinite possibilities of remaking oneself.
The early parts of the film use Hefner's home movies to portray the archetypal nerd, a gawky kid who was the product of a repressed Methodist upbringing. What inspired his first "re-emergence" was, of all things, an early exposure to the FLASH GORDON serials featuring the dashing space hero
pulling the lovely heroine (pointedly braless in the clips featured) out of one scrape after another at the hands of Ming the Merciless before escaping in Gordon's phallic spaceship. Hefner remade himself as a dashing big man on campus and took over the school magazine, where he instituted a photo
feature spotlighting the "Coed of the Month."
At the helm of Playboy, he remade himself again, into a social philosopher and crusader for liberal causes. As the magazine became an empire, he remade himself yet again, though unsuccessfully, into a jet-setting capitalist, wheeling and dealing from aboard his jet-black DC-9. He was forced to
sell his Atlantic City casino when the New Jersey Gaming Commission turned down his application for a license. The other clubs and resorts became a cash hemorrhage and the magazine came to appear stodgy and outdated with the popularity of X-rated videos and raunchier competition on the newsstands.
HUGH HEFNER: ONCE UPON A TIME touches on all this, as well as the suicide of his assistant, Bobbie Arnstein, while under the scrutiny of the DEA, which posthumously exonerated her of drug-dealing charges, and the more recent murder of Playmate Dorothy Stratten. As the pace picks up late in the
film, figures ranging from Peter Bogdanovich to William F. Buckley, Jerry Falwell and Susan Brownmiller all check in with denunciations, with Falwell and Brownmiller agreeing from polar opposite ends of the political spectrum that Playboy ought to be banned.
Throughout, Hefner manages to remain something more than a soft-core pornographer and exploiter of women and something less than a great thinker but always undeniably a classic American enigma wrapped inside a mystery. Surprisingly enough, at least to the millions of heterosexual males who still
admire him, Hefner never, for a moment, looks quite comfortable in his own skin. Even in the newly filmed interview footage, he looks as he always has: wrung out, his eyes darting like those of a caged animal, clutching his omnipresent pipe as if it were a lifeline to his sanity.
Woody Allen once quipped that the Constitution guarantees us the pursuit of happiness, but it doesn't guarantee that we'll catch it. It is that odd undercurrent of melancholy that raises HUGH HEFNER: ONCE UPON A TIME from a sophisticated puff piece into something resembling art. (Adult situations,nudity.)
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: NR
- Review: Despite its release under the Lynch/Frost banner, this feature-length documentary on the founder of Playboy magazine, on its surface at least, is a surprisingly tame affair that seems to gloss over the controversies and turmoil surrounding its subject. A c… (more)