American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story – a pitiful love letter to an aged lothario

Julia Raeside
‘A bighead with delusions of his own cultural worth’ … Matt Whelan as Hugh Hefner with Shara Connolly as Barbi Benton in American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story. Photograph: Rodelio Astudillo/AP

What is it? Thirteen puffs of sycophantic smoke, right up Playboy magazine’s founder.

Why you’ll love it: You won’t, unless you are Hugh Hefner. Truly a docu-drama for our times, this unbelievably long love letter to the aged shagger features one talking head after another, telling us what a terrific pioneer Hef is, while actors and actresses (more of them later) re-enact scenes from his blessed, blameless life. As if any right-minded person fancies settling down to hear about how a rich, self-aggrandising tool made his money from other people’s assets. For “told from his unique perspective”, read “in the words of a bighead with delusions of his own cultural worth”. Hefner claims everything from social change to the breaking down of sexual taboos, and he did it all on his own, with just a few ownerless fannies and racks as props. Our actual hero.

US society was so repressed that it practically bent over and wiggled at the thought of this sexually liberated saviour, who rode into town to “challenge conformity” while looking at loads of boobs and getting paid for it.

I shudder to think of the casting call for the dramatised elements: actress wanted to play young 1950s woman, must have bounceable breasts and an arse to match. Speaking not essential. There isn’t a single female performer in the first two episodes (the only ones available before release) who doesn’t flash her charlies. I’d say teenage boys were the core audience, but they have the internet now. Who is this even for?

It all starts with the first issue of Playboy in 1952, fronted with a snap of Marilyn Monroe and offering a nude centrefold of her. Hef doesn’t ask her, you understand. He just buys her photo for $500 and congratulates himself. “I bought the rights to one of the most famous women in world,” the narration, by the actor playing young Hef, boasts. Do you want to rephrase that in light of our collective emergence from the cave or are you going to just leave it there, un-commented on, in 2017?

Hefner is conspicuously absent from the documentary segments. Every interview with him here is clipped from the 80s, which sits oddly with the present-day chip-ins from people like his on-brand son Cooper Hefner, who now runs the bunny empire in his aged father’s stead. Many other interviewees hold or have held an executive role in Playboy Inc.

At no point is this the story of a sexually driven chancer who spots a gap in the market; a bored husband who realises the skirt will queue round the block if offers the nearest pretty girl the chance to be Miss July.

While domestic tragedy is kept largely off-camera and massively mitigated in voiceover, dramatic tension is implanted into office scenes where there is none: episode one – what do we call the magazine? Issue two – which tits this time? The editorial team realises it peaked with Marilyn’s mammaries, leaving it nowhere else to go. Worra crisis.

Former playmates, now as old as you would expect and presumably invisible to Hef, talk about the golden days of being naked while all the men weren’t. And there Hef sits, Dorian Gray, who remains young only in that everyone treats him as if he’s still got it because he is loaded. Pitiful.

Where: Amazon Prime.

Length: Thirteen 45-minute episodes, available to stream from 7 April. Thirteen.

Standout episode: The opener will have your chin on the floor for all of the reasons mentioned above. After that, walk away.

If you liked American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story watch: Hot Girls Wanted (Netflix), Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno Live! (Amazon Prime).

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