Film review

FILM REVIEW: Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America

Nina Simone and guests from Playboy’s Penthouse

Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America
Review by Andrew Cartmel

When Hugh Hefner died, at least one dismissive obituary in a major publication characterised him as a “pornographer”. While this charge was clearly true of some of Hefner’s more sleazy rivals — think Larry Flynt, doyen of Hustler — anybody who believes Playboy magazine was pornographic has either never seen a copy or doesn’t get out much.

Less easily refuted is the charge by feminists of Hefner’s publication objectifying and exploiting women. But even here there’s a need for nuance, and a case to be made that Hugh Hefner helped to create exactly that more open society in which feminist values could, and did, flourish. And not by accident, either.

With the better part of a lifetime spent crusading (it’s not too strong a word) for human rights, free speech and liberal ideals, Hefner may have achieved more than any other individual in terms of setting in motion the seismic shift of values and morality that began in the 1960s —doing all this when he wasn’t otherwise occupied drinking Pepsi, smoking a pipe, hanging around in pyjamas (during the day) and consorting with countless pneumatic girlfriends.

Bill Maher says he was a “social revolutionary”, and that’s exactly right.

Along the way Hefner attracted plenty of hatred (again not too strong a word) from a broad spectrum of opponents, from the most conservative religious zealots to the most extreme intersectional feminists, who if nothing else can at least agree on how much they revile Hefner both in his person and in his personal philosophy.

So Brigitte Berman’s fascinating documentary film Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America sails bravely out into choppy waters, presenting as it does Hefner and his works in such an unabashedly positive light. But the Canadian film maker has irrefutable material to support her argument, because the film is built on and around the two television series Hefner created, produced and presented.

These were Playboy’s Penthouse (a title which these days sets up cognitive dissonance in anyone familiar with the existence of two men’s magazines which are deadly rivals, but in the 1959-60 TV season made perfect sense) and Playboy After Dark (1968-70).

No one can deny that Hefner was ground breaking — and indeed daring — in his choice of guests for the shows, especially Playboy’s Penthouse. Not only were there black performers here in unprecedented numbers, they were casually fraternising with their white counterparts, and members of the audience (the show was shot as if it was a party taking place in Hefner’s bachelor pad).

And, more audacious yet, there were integrated combos like the Gateway Singers and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross (here appearing with guest vocalist Joe Williams, and Count Basie on piano!). This was all still unacceptable, if not unthinkable in the deep south. And elsewhere in America.

Hugh Hefner with Jon Hendricks, Count Basie, Tony Bennett and
guests from Playboy’s Penthouse

Nor was it just in terms of race that Hefner’s choices were controversial. The debut episode of Playboy’s Penthouse features comedian Lenny Bruce a year or so before his first arrest for obscenity, reflecting that his tattoo bars him from burial in a Jewish cemetery (“That’s the Orthodox scene”). Even more courage was needed to feature Pete Seeger who at the time was still considered virtually radioactive because of his left-leaning politics. But the pipe-smoking host had no qualms; he was strongly and boldly anti-McCarthy. As the film puts it, “People who were blacklisted were welcomed into the Hefner world.”

But it’s the musicians who are most vividly present in the film footage after all these years. And they’re great. You’ll soon forget — or at least forgive — the cut-out Chicago skyline in the background. Nina Simone just tears the place up, Ray Charles is achingly soulful and Sarah Vaughan is scorching — there’s also an amusing bit where she has to hastily get rid of a lung full of cigarette smoke before chatting with Hefner; at the end of the 1950s, the folks are all smoking like troopers.

And these musical performances were all genuinely live. No pre-record and lip synch here.

For all its pioneering brilliance, Playboy’s Penthouse only lasted one season. Nearly a decade later Hefner retooled the concept as Playboy After Dark. The new show still used Cy Coleman’s adroit and timelessly hip theme tune, but in other aspects the changes are considerable, especially musically. We’ve gone from the Charlie Byrd Trio to The Byrds, so to speak.

The transition from one show to the other also charts the changes in American society. The cause du jour has segued from civil rights into opposition to the Vietnam war. And where racial unity was such a feature of Playboy’s Penthouse (“It was not just a white show,” says Smokey Robinson. “Everybody tuned in.”) here it’s the youth movement and the counter culture which Hefner is also embracing. Again, the cutting edge comedians of the day are featured — Don Rickles, the Smothers Brothers — and now it’s Tina Turner blowing the doors off musically. And there are plenty of surprises in store, such as Gore Vidal espousing gay and polyamorous values.

Documentary film maker Brigitte Berman with Leon Kennedy,
Smokey Robinson and Victor Solnicki

In a concluding montage of current activism and social disobedience, the 2017 Women’s March on Washington features significantly. Reportedly the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, it isn’t one where Hugh Hefner is likely to have been warmly welcomed. But the irony that he played such an important part in establishing the very conditions that enabled powerful female voices to call for his scalp is one that is unlikely to have been lost on Hefner.

And one that he might well have appreciated.

Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out In America was released to UK cinemas on 26 April. A DVD release is expected in Autumn 2019.
Film stills and photo courtesy of Brigitte Berman

Categories: Film review

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