Produced by David Lynch and Mark Frost at the height of their Twin Peaks fame and directed by Robert Heath, Hugh Hefner: Once Upon A Time is a salutatory documentary on The Man, The Magazine and The Legend of both.
While the film certainly celebrates Hefner, it does not shy away from the more controversial aspects of Hefner’s sordid, wordly life and career. Each scandal is at least mentioned. Unfortunately, too often it seems to be lip service. The causes and repercussions of the most unsavory events are never fully investigated or explored. The murder of Dorothy Stratton is a case in point. Nonetheless, the events themselves are fascinating; Hef’s life charmed, to say the least.
Once Upon A Time chronicles Hef’s life--his humble Protestant upbringing in Chicago, his unremarkable school years, his tour of duty in the Army, a baccalaureate at the University of Illinois and his tenure at Esquire. When Esquire refused to give Hef a $5 a week raise, the twenty-seven-year-old writer and cartoonist decided to launch his own magazine.
That magazine, of course, became Playboy, the manifestation of Hef’s personal philosophy of hedonism, libertarianism and a swingin’ 50’s aesthetic. In the face of the Eisenhower Era, the magazine certainly rained down controversy. That controversy followed Hefner and Playboy for the next thirty-five years, during which Hefner slept with countless women, and even married a few. Once Upon A Time ends with a contented Hef, married to former Playmate Kimberly Conrad, raising a family with her and professing a new philosophy of monogamy.
It’s a very quaint note on which to close. However, in light of the seven years since the release of the film, it just seems silly. By 1996, Hef’s marriage was on the rocks. In the past year, he’s been seen everywhere cavorting with twenty-something triplets.
Despite its shortcomings, Once Upon A Time is an intriguing look at a true American original, who with all his faults and all his blessings, helped usher in the Sexual Revolution and changed the way we look at ourselves.