Love mate, not playmate, was Hefner's obsession

ROGER SIMON

September 30, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

LOS ANGELES -- The movie ends, the lights come up a little, and the screen retracts into Hugh Hefner's living room ceiling.

Hefner is kneeling on the soft cushions of his big leather couch and still staring at where the screen used to be. His throat works for a moment before he can speak.

He has seen the movie a dozen times, but it still gets to him.

"There is," he finally says, "a lot of pain up there on that screen."

The movie is a 90-minute documentary made by David Lynch of "Twin Peaks" and "Blue Velvet" fame and Mark Frost. It is called: "Hugh Hefner: Once Upon a Time."

It will debut Oct. 14 in Chicago, Hefner's hometown, then go into limited commercial release nationwide.

"It is," he told me before the movie began, "a cross between 'Citizen Kane' and Madonna's 'Truth or Dare.'

But I'm not sure even that warning prepared me for it.

Even though in the end the movie is a tribute to Hefner, it is an unusually candid one and one that dwells on the darkest periods of his life.

There is Playboy magazine, of course (which I have written for), the girls, the Playboy mansions, the girls, the parties, the girls, the Playboy jet, the girls, the drugs, the girls, and, well, you get the idea.

It is the story of a man desperately seeking something. Girls, perhaps. But, then again, perhaps not.

Hefner grew up in a solidly Methodist, Republican, middle-class home. His ancestors had come over on the Mayflower, and he lived an All-American boyhood.

It was a comfortable life, but at an early age he developed a sense of social justice: He hung out with the poorest kids on the block, he got into schoolyard fights defending Franklin Roosevelt and was ostracized in the Army during World War II for befriending Jewish soldiers.

He escaped into the movies of Frank Capra: "It's A Wonderful Life", "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Meet John Doe."

"My first feelings about sex were Capra-esque," Hefner said. "The movies are about idealistic men pitted against authority. And I was struck by the injustice of sex laws. I thought they were unfair."

L Which is not what most people get out of Frank Capra movies.

But Hefner's feelings would lead to Playboy magazine, which would lead to another American revolution, a sexual one this time.

"I tried to make sex healthy and commonplace," Hefner said. "I oppose pictures that degrade or hurt women. I am not involved in that."

Some feminists would disagree, and the documentary presents a number of Hefner's critics.

It ends on an upbeat note, however: Hefner talking about his second marriage and new family.

But at the end of the movie Hefner displays such an enormous vulnerability that you can't help but feel uneasy for him.

Why? Because here is a man, 66, committed to a woman, 30, and involved in a marriage so romantic, so consuming, so important to his life that it seems ripe for tragedy.

And he knows it.

"That was part of the reason I was so obsessive all those years," Hefner said. "I felt: If you don't commit, you don't get hurt."

And now you are willing to risk committing and getting hurt? I asked.

"I am willing to risk it," he said. "I am willing to be vulnerable. I can put the pompous part of my life, all the masks I used to wear, all the games I used to play, behind me.

"I am about to write a Third Act to my life no longer troubled by demons. And I am going to make this the most precious part of my life."

The last scene in the movie is Hefner on his lawn, his wife, Kimberley, sitting across from him, infant Cooper on his lap, and toddler Marston coming over and kissing Cooper and then hugging and kissing his father.

And I asked the man who had written the complex (and seemingly endless) Playboy Philosophy to sum up what it all means.

"What this world needs is more hugging and less hurting," Hugh Hefner said.

So I don't think he ever really was looking for sex. Sex was just a substitute. He was looking for love. He was not looking for a lot of women; he was looking for just one. One he could love and who would love him in return. He was looking to make all his dreams come true.

And how corny, how very American, can you get?

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