Anne T. Donahue On Why Not Everyone Needs A Biopic—Especially Not Hugh Hefner

Jared Leto will play Hugh Hefner in a new biopic and Anne T. Donahue isn’t into it—or any biopic that doesn’t grapple with the subject’s place in history

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Why not everyone needs a biopic: Hugh Hefner and Jared Leto.

A week after the death of Hugh Hefner, news that no one was waiting for came to pass: Jared Leto will be starring as the Playboy founder in an upcoming, yet-to-be-titled film directed by Brett Ratner.

In the immortal words of George Bluth, “I don’t want these.”

And not just because Hef was… well, let’s leave it at problematic. We’re also living in a world operating at biopic capacity. Recently, Leonardo DiCaprio signed on to star as Theodore Roosevelt in an upcoming film helmed by Martin Scorsese, and Gary Oldman is earning Oscar buzz for his turn as Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour, which comes just months after the wide release of Churchill, another (unrelated) Churchill biopic. Films about A.A. Milne, Tonya Harding, William Marston (the creator of Wonder Woman) and Barry Seal have also been released this year, and even more are scheduled to drop in time for nomination season. But the thing is, not every person deserves a biopic—or hey, maybe we spread them out a bit?

Obviously, a well-done biopic is unparalleled. Ava DuVernay used Martin Luther King’s march on Selma to powerfully illuminate the social and political climate of the early sixties, while still shedding light on his own story. Hidden Figures acquainted audiences with the genius of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who were responsible for launching John Glenn into space—and bringing him home again. The Social Network gave us dizzying insight into the launch of the social media platform we’ve come to both hate and fear (or it this just me?), and Foxcatcher was a quiet look into the murder of Dave Schultz at the hands of wrestling coach John du Pont.

But for every Oscar nominee, there’s films like Diana, Nina or Jobs (that’s the one that didn’t star Michael Fassbender). These movies attempt to honour icons, but instead do them a massive disservice with misguided approaches, bad dialogue or an inability to see outside just one person’s story. This isn’t to say these icons don’t deserve to have their lives commemorated on-screen; we just need to begin redefining the way we tell them, worrying less about portraying their entire lives and instead focussing on one key part of their stories.

Think about it. The biopics that mean the most tend to zero in on a specific era and its corresponding social and political climate. Even easily digestible films like The King’s Speech or The Queen focus on the specificities of a particular era, highlighting the subject’s best and worst traits while commenting on society, too. That’s because a good biopic is never only about its namesake. It’s always about the extenuating circumstances that turned a person into a “figure” and makes an argument for why history should remember them. Good Night, and Good Luck profiled Edward R. Murrow, but it was also about the impact of the Red Scare on the American imagination. Erin Brockovich wasn’t just about a brassy legal assistant; it also tackled corporate social responsibility—and what happens when companies don’t follow the rules.

Which brings us back to Jared Leto and Hugh Hefner. “When [Leto] heard I got the rights to Hef’s story, he told me, ‘I want to play him. I want to understand him.’ And I really believe Jared can do it. He’s one of the greatest actors of today,” Ratner says.

But a successful biopic doesn’t rely solely on how well someone can act. History is riddled with terrible movies at the hands of actors who’ve proven how well they can be somebody else. (Need I bring up Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar or worse, Jennifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano in Joy?) We don’t need a movie about Hugh Hefner. If anything, we need a movie about the era and circumstances that saw Hefner form the ideologies that defined his legacy. We’re looking for a film that explains how the guise of sexual progressiveness began serving as social, economic, and political currency, and why Hefner stayed so rooted in such a limited approach to sexuality. Why, despite believing in sexual power, did he prefer women to be powerless?

So, it isn’t a question of who can play Hefner best. It’s a question of how his story can be used to tell a bigger, more important one.

And if Brett Ratner is up to that challenge, then godspeed. If Jared Leto is interested in understanding the full scope of Hefner, as opposed to what led him to becoming a caricature, that’s great. But if not, nobody needs this. If we wanted just another tale about some guy lounging around in his jimmy-jams all day, we could take a walk to any university dormitory on a Saturday afternoon and say hello.

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