Hugh Hefner: Once Upon a Time
1992 Directed by Robert Heath. Narrated by James Coburn.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 19, 1993
This exhaustive documentary on the life of Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner feels more like an errant PBS special than full-fledged cinematic documentary: despite its larger-than-life subject, it's a small screen effort. Produced, oddly enough by the team of David Lynch and Mark Frost, Heath's take on the man who made “bunny” a household word and introduced several generations of young American males to “the girl next door,” is full of tantalizing tidbits, from Hef's early Dexedrine abuse to comedian/activist Dick Gregory's wry observation on the Playboy Mansion's nightly buffet: “I didn't realize that I was black and poor until I saw that buffet.” At its peak in the early to mid-Sixties, Playboy was publishing not only pictures of some of the most beautiful women in the world, but also the written work of Alex Haley, Malcolm X, and ground-breaking fiction by such authors as Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont, Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce. It also produced a film version of Macbeth, which was directed by Roman Polanski, and launched a publishing line at the same time. Unfortunately, the documentary gives only token time to Hef's detractors, among them Jerry Falwell and a couple of feminists who seem thrown in for good measure. The 1980 murder of Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten and Hef's recent marriage are there, but as a whole, director Heath has created something more akin to one of those Playboy After Hours specials than to a solid piece of documentary reporting on one of the most important social figures of the 20th century.