Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream

Steven Watts has managed to do the near-impossible: turn Hugh Hefner's life into a plodding, monotonous and excruciatingly goddamn boring exercise in academic overkill and professorial tedium. His Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream is the first serious book-length attempt to view Hefner as an historical figure, particularly against the backdrop of the socially conservative 1950s in which Playboy was first launched. As a study that largely ignores the more salacious and sordid details of the publisher's life in favor of a considered examination of how Playboy has both impacted and reacted to shifting cultural and sexual attitudes, the book occasionally succeeds. Yet it's ultimately a failure; excessively long and mind-numbingly repetitive, the book is a dry, clinical and humorless biography that simply goes in circles.

That Watts has done his research is never in question. Drawing from an ungodly amount of material from the 1950s to the present, Watts' portrait of Hefner is likely as complete a depiction of the publisher as we'll get. Granted substantial interview time with Hefner in which he clearly discussed far more than which women Hefner has nailed over the years - the author is likely more dedicated than others would be in his place - Watts does a solid job of offering a nuanced view of Hefner as both a person and businessman. Though Watts' depiction is largely sympathetic, it's not fawning and Hefner's flaws do not go unmentioned. Watts never resorts to tabloid journalism; those interested in a tell-all sex fest should look elsewhere. Hefner's single-minded focus - some would say obsession - on all major aspects of the magazine is discussed in depth, as are the various triumphs and tragedies that punctuate the Playboy story. Though Hefner obviously the book's focus, it also serves as a nice primer for anyone interested in the magazine's history (and not just the pictures).

All of which makes Mr. Playboy all the more frustrating. Despite Watts' intensive research and direct access to Hefner, the book is agonizingly redundant and tiresome to read. One of Watts' major assertions is that Playboy played an integral part in shaping the public's views on leisure, consumerism, wealth, and, of course, sex, especially in the post-World War II Eisenhower years. Watts argues that Hefner was adamant that Playboy would never be branded as a skin magazine or pervert's handbook, showing how from its earliest days the magazine included social commentary, fashion advice, fiction from leading writers of the day and critiques of music and film. Less convincingly, Watts depicts Hefner as a, to use his words, "philosopher king" whose frequently awkward and half-baked forays into philosophical discourse attempted to codify the Playboy philosophy.

Though Watts shows how Hefner played a pivotal role in endorsing a lifestyle of pleasure and, in a term the author uses far too often, "material abundance," this conclusion is reiterated constantly and turns the biography into a bloated tome that fails to maintain the reader's attention. Watts exerts a lot of effort and numerous pages - Going Green was apparently never an option - doing nothing more than restating this thesis. The book quickly suffocates under the weight of this oft-repeated conclusion, with a grotesque number of incredibly similar quotes utilized to the point of the reader's annoyance. Watts is about as subtle as a hammer upside the head; either he doesn't trust the reader to get the point unless it's repeated ad nauseam or he needed to add bulk to the biography. Either way too often the book reads like minor variations on the same theme, an interminable and seemingly endless regurgitation of a conclusion that is made painfully obvious. Watts also tends to view too many of Hefner's actions and decisions in light of the editor's broader cultural and social ambitions, an approach that sometimes isn't entirely believable; sometimes a photograph of a naked woman is just a photograph of a naked woman and not a harbinger of evolving cultural attitudes or a celebration of a consumerist lifestyle.

Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream is simply too deliberate and mechanical, with no textures, quirks or humor to offset its laborious approach to Hefner's life and legacy. Regardless of one's personal opinion of the Playboy founder, it's undeniable that Hefner had a visible role in this country's attitudes toward a variety of social and cultural issues. It's a pity that his life story too often takes a back seat to Watts' insistence to make his point.

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