There was a time when Playboy was a transgressive magazine, and teens and parents both hid their copies deep in their closets. That made it all so much more titillating, that owning photos of naked women was somehow wrong. Now — or at least until Vice President Pence pulls us into a new brand of Victorian censorship — sexual mores have become more realistic. And any kind of body engaged in any kind of sexual act is available at a click. No more cutting your finger on staples loosened from overuse.
Those shifts in our culture, along with competition by the likes of Vice and Maxim for the eyes of young men, have left Playboy struggling to redefine itself. Its circulation has plummeted since the 1970s. Last year, the magazine tried to distinguish itself from online porn by eliminating nudity, forcing readers to tell the truth when claiming they read it for the articles. This year, Cooper Hefner, chief creative officer and son of founder Hugh Hefner, reversed that decision, admitting it was a bad idea. Explicit photos returned in the March/April 2017 issue, with a cover line reading: “Naked is normal.”
Smack in the middle of this identity crisis, Amazon is releasing a 10-episode docu-series about the magazine called “American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story.” Based on the first two episodes available for preview, the biography, authorized by the 90-year-old Hugh Hefner, unfolds like a bland, hagiographic promotional tool or an affectionate eulogy for the magazine, it’s hard to tell which. The episodes walk step by step through the early years of the publication as if they’re chronicling the creation of a sacred tablet. And don’t think Hefner’s importance as a groundbreaker goes unnoticed, amid the many broad cultural clichés about the 1950s.
The series, available on Friday, is a mish-mash of styles. On the documentary side, there are many old photos, tons of footage, and interviews with admirers such as Bill Maher, James Caan, Brett Ratner, and Cooper Hefner, who is one of the producers. And then there is liberal use of that most awkward of techniques: the dramatic re-creation. Clips of the real people, including Hugh Hefner and his first wife, Millie, are crammed beside vignettes featuring the actors who play them — Matt Whelan and Ella Becroft, respectively. Frequently, the voice of the real Hugh Hefner backs up against the voice-over by Whelan, an odd collision of real and fake. A straight-up documentary — filled with more insightful talking heads — might have provided a less jumbled result.
We see Hugh Hefner in the late 1940s and early ’50s, a thin, handsome fellow who appears to be completely conventional. But we learn that after reading some Kinsey, writing ad copy for Esquire, having sex with a stranger in his car, and editing a college humor publication called Shaft, whose “Coed of the Month” feature later inspired Playboy’s “Playmate of the Month,” he begins to conceive and build his dream magazine. “The editorial message was that sex was OK,” the real Hefner says in a clip. To distinguish the first issue of Playboy — whose name was changed from Stag Party after legal action from Stag magazine — Hefner bought the rights to a nude photo of Marilyn Monroe. The magazine sold well, and the tiny staff quickly grew to 25 employees.
Going forward after the successful premiere, the Playboy staff had to stretch their creative imaginations to follow up the Marilyn photo. That’s when the Playmate idea was hatched, along with the notion that the magazine ought to shoot its own pictures rather than buy them. Throughout all of this excitement, with Hefner essentially living at his office, his marriage broke up.
I’m not sure exactly what follows in the next eight episodes, although I’m assuming the story will chronicle the creation of Playboy clubs and the parties at the Playboy mansion. Still, I have a feeling that a thorough Web browse might be a viable alternative.
AMERICAN PLAYBOY: THE HUGH HEFNER STORY
Starring: Matt Whelan, Emmett Skilton, Adam Segaller, Ian Bell, Eryn Wilson, Andrew Blair
On: Amazon, season one available Friday