In the fascinating and thorough new documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, Rebel, you don’t learn much about the larger-than-life, octogenarian character who spends most of his time in his pajamas and dates women who are at least half a century younger than he is. What you do learn about is a very smart and thoughtful man who has an unmistakable moral compass and has always ended up on the correct side of history.
The film was directed by Canadian filmmaker Brigitte Berman, who is best known for documentaries on jazz musicians Bix Beiderbecke and Artie Shaw. The latter (Artie Shaw: Time is All You Got) won the Academy Award in 1987 for Best Documentary and the former (Bix: “Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet”) was responsible for Berman and Hefner meeting. When I interviewed Brigitte Berman after her documentary screened at the Seattle International Film Festival, she explained, “it just happened that Bix was Hef’s favorite musician. When I won the Oscar for the Artie Shaw film, Hef tracked me down through Mary O’Connor, his right-hand woman, and she called me and said Hef wanted to get a copy of it, so I sent it down. He’s been showing it and whenever I was in LA, I was invited to the mansion for movie night. Our friendship grew over music and movies.” She further explained “I knew there was so much more behind him because I’d hear him talk after movies and I saw the intelligent and complex side. I decided that I wanted to make a film about him. I wrote up a treatment because I knew that he would never agree to it if someone came up to him and said ‘Hef, can I do a movie about you?’ The next day, he sent me a fax that said ‘I love it and anything you need, I’ll give you.'”
While the portrait of Hefner is sympathetic in the film and he is interviewed at length and provided a lot of materials featured, his involvement was minimal. Berman said “he gave me creative freedom, which was extraordinary for me and very important for me as a filmmaker because I don’t want anyone to think that I’m a director for hire or that I’m doing it because he asked me to. No, no, no. He was completely hands-off the entire time.”
There were no shortage of critics to be interviewed in the film, including feminists like Susan Brownmiller and Christian conservatives like Pat Boone and Dennis Prager. While the decision to ever solicit Pat Boone’s opinion on anything should be examined with a skeptical eye, she explained “Victor (Solnicki, Berman’s partner and a producer on the film) suggested Pat Boone because he was reading up on Pat Boone and and how, as strong Christian activist, he strongly felt that Hef’s influence had broken the moral fiber of America. That was why I wanted to interview him and have him in the film.” She added “the most difficult people (to agree to be interviewed for the film) were the naysayers” but she wanted to include more. One high-profile figure that declined was Gloria Steinem, who went undercover as a Playboy bunny for a very critical article she wrote in 1963 detailing how she was treated in the New York Playboy Club. Berman said she refused to participate. While seeking dissent is hardly inconsistent with Hefner’s values (controversial, right-wing talk radio host Michael Savage is the subject of the Playboy Interview in the most recent issue of Playboy), having people say “you suck” on screen in literally the story of your life couldn’t be easy for anyone.
One of the most surprising aspects of the film is Hefner’s commitment to civil rights. Jim Brown and Jesse Jackson are both interviewed in the film and very highly of Hefner. One story Berman told both in the movie and in her interview with me is “when Hef found out in Miami and New Orleans that black people were kept from coming into the Playboy Clubs, he had to buy [the clubs] back at a loss. He did not care. He knew that it was wrong that the clubs bore his name and he was not going to be associated with that. To this day, he is really proud of that.”
She also talks of a kinship between Hefner and Martin Luther King. She says “Hef was very close to Dr. King. When he died, the article about him in Playboy was edited and finished by his widow.” She adds “Dr. King was one of those people whose idealism made him ahead of his time. He really stuck his neck out and really believed what was right. I think that was what brought about a kinship between Hef and Martin Luther King, the belief in doing what is right.” In the film, Hefner says that few people realize that Dr. King’s dream “was my dream, too.”
The guiding theme through Hefner’s life is summed up by Berman who told me, “for him, it was always human rights and anything less than that is wrong.”
Brownmiller’s complaint was that the models featured in Playboy set up an unattainable ideal for women to live up to. I’ve always found that argument incomplete not because Anna Nicole Smith was both curvy and a Playmate of the Year but because the magazine has featured lots of women writers and have read fiction by Joyce Carol Oates and political reporting by the late Molly Ivins in the pages of Playboy. Still, Berman says Hefner found Brownmiller to be an intellectually honest critic. “When he saw the film, that longer version, and she mentioned two names of his editors and he laughed and said ‘I’m so glad she was reading the magazine!’ That meant a lot to him and she actually went up in his estimation because she knew the names of his editors.”
One of the most enjoyable moments of the film were the clips from the “Playboy” televisions shows Hefner hosted, especially “Playboy’s Penthouse,” a program set to look like a cocktail party everyone wanted to be invited to. There is one particular touching scene where Hefner gifts Sammy Davis, Jr. with a cute puppy. It ran for one season, in 1969. Another program, “Playboy After Dark,” ran for two a few years later.
While long for a documentary (124 minutes), the film moves at a quick pace and never seems dull or uninteresting. Some events, like Hefner’s marriage to former Playmate of the Year Kimberly Conrad in 1989, are barely covered for the sake of brevity. There is no narration and the story is held together by interviews and rare footage. For the storytelling aspect, Berman said she liked the dimension Mike Wallace brought to the film. “He counted how many naked women were in the magazine! He said he was a prude but he learned to appreciate other sides of Hef that isn’t just the naked bodies in the magazine. It’s so much more than that. That was one of the reasons he was so important to me. I like the narrative arc that he has from moving from here to here. He still says he’s a prude.”
The film does cover Hefner’s legal issues, including when Playboy was labeled as obscenity because Jayne Mansfield was featured nude in the magazine (Playboy was never obscene or pornographic) and his challenging of archaic sodomy laws. It was noted several times in the film that if those laws were fairly enforced, most sexually active adults would be serving a minimum of five years in prison for private, consensual acts.
Berman said she spent three years making the film and one issue that hangs over the film is what will happen to Playboy once Mr. Hefner is no longer with us. He’s 84 years old right now and no one lives forever. She told me “His mother lived to be over 100, so there’s longevity there! I think it’s important to have people like this with us for a long time to come.” Hefner’s daughter Christie recently resigned as Chairman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises and this isn’t exactly a fertile era for magazines in general. “All I can say is that the magazine will be there as long as Hef is there… It’s his life blood. What happens after that, I don’t know.”