Most folk heroes are deservedly memorable for one good reason or another. Some discover continents, build railroads, or walk on the moon all very important stuff. Other folk heroes may be memorable for less conventional reasons. Hugh Marston Hefner is one of them. His magazine, Playboy, and its accompanying philosophy and lifestyle so lavishly epitomized by Hef himself have had an enduring effect on how American men think of morality, love, relationships, and, most important, sexuality.
Making a documentary on the life and times of one of our more glamorous architects of social change would have to be both difficult and dangerous. Historically, no single aspect of human behavior has been more maligned or misunderstood than sex. Besides, it's damned difficult to be serious or even objective about a man who has built an empire on T&A. Believe me.
Hugh Hefner: Once Upon a Time, however, succeeds surprisingly well. It is a film of confetti-like images images familiar to several generations of eager young men who fashioned their own dreams and fantasies on the same forge. It describes an era in which Hefner played a bizarre but urgent role: The tide of the sexual revolution had swelled upon us, and he parted the waves that men might pass.
That Playboy magazine has contributed to the evolution of sexual thinking in the last quarter century cannot be denied. Of course, Hefner profited tangibly as America profited philosophically. While he amassed a personal fortune, including Playboy Mansion West (where he's interviewed in this film), the country grew richer in its pleasures and its understanding of the S-word.
There are a few weaknesses in this fairly ambitious David Lynch/Mark Frost production. Most of the people interviewed are close friends and associates (like cartoonist Jules Feiffer and comedians Mort Sahl and Dick Gregory) or ex-lovers (like Barbi Benton), whose comments are, understandably, favorable. There are also occasional murmurs of criticism from the likes of William F. Buckley Jr. and feminist Susan Brownmiller. But they come from the dark side of the spectrum and are of little or no consequence.
The film glosses over a few key events in Hefner's career, such as the loss of Playboy's British casino licenses in 1981, which at the time threatened the empire. Also, the movie's handling of the suicide of Bobbie Arnstein, Hefner's pal and longtime personal assistant, leaves much to be desired.
All in all, though, this reviewer perhaps better qualified than most can testify to the sensitive and largely sincere character and quality of this film. Rent it. I won't be offended. B