The announcement that Hugh M. Hefner has ponied up $900,000 to help save the Hollywood sign from destruction came as no surprise if you’re familiar with Hefner’s long-standing infatuation with all things old Hollywood.
As a direct patron of the cinematic arts, Hefner’s record is sporadically impressive. Playboy Productions did give the world Roman Polanski’s impressively violent “Macbeth” and Peter Bogdanovich’s high-water mark “Saint Jack,” two seriously worthwhile movies. If Dino de Laurentiis is an unlikely patron of the arts for letting David Lynch have complete control on “Blue Velvet,” we must give Hef credit where credit’s due. Elsewhere, Hefner’s dream of conveying the Playboy philosophy of thoughtful hedonism and erudition via non-softcore-porn movies never came to fruition. He’s had two perfectly dreadful cameos in the last few years as himself: in “The House Bunny,” where he unconvincingly falls for Anna Faris’ charms, and in “Miss March,” where he delivers a rote, uninspired monologue about the nature of true love. Here’s Hef discussing the latter role:
Hefner has, quite late in the game, decided to share his cinephilic knowledge with the world. “Movie Night at the Playboy Mansion” informs us that he has a library of 20,000 DVDs and film prints (a collection that would come in handy in a pinch if TCM were suddenly fire-bombed) and presents us with the notes Hefner presumably declaims to “his invited celebrity friends, coworkers and special ladies about the movie they’re about to see.”
As a programmer, Hef’s fairly catholic, veering from untouchable landmarks (“The Maltese Falcon,” “The Third Man”) to long-forgotten prestige fare (“Disraeli,” “Knight Without Armour”), with pit-stops at a smattering of post-’40s films (“The Exorcist,” “The Jerk”), recent movies about which he hasn’t a damn thing to say (“Sherlock Holmes,” “Nine”) and — most intriguingly — basic assembly-line studio fare (“Too Hot To Handle,” “Carefree”). The notes are a melange of shooting dates and production trivia, leavened with anecdotes from any biographies Hef might have lying around.
Flashes of personality are rare and limited to Hef figuring out if the movie is a four- or five-star experience, though I do like this interjection about the 1938 late-period Astaire-Rogers vehicle “Carefree”: “The plot concerns psychiatry and hypnosis, so it was a special favorite of mine back in 1938. Who wouldn’t want to have Ginger under their control in an hypnotic trance?” Of course.
It’s sweet that Hefner — like his semi-logical heir in film fetishism, Quentin Tarantino — wants nothing more than the chance to share a lifetime of obsessive viewing with whoever’s around, using the carrot of the Mansion to lure the Bunnies into watching minor Astaire-Rogers or little remembered Clark Gable-Myrna Loy movies. As “Playboy” recedes into the cultural sunset, at least Hefner’s educating the unschooled on the only cultural heritage that really seems to matter to him.
[Photos: “Miss March,” 20th Century Fox, 2009; “Carefree,” Warner Home Video, 1938]