Ask Hugh Hefner if he learned anything about himself from the Brigitte Berman documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, and he doesn’t miss a beat.
Watch the trailer for Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel.
“No,” the American icon says with a laugh, on the line from the most famous mansion in Los Angeles. “I pretty much knew me pretty well.”
The 84-year-old founder of Playboy might have walked away from Berman’s film without a single surprise, but audiences learn plenty about the world’s most celebrated octogenarian. Over the course of an often-fascinating, endlessly revealing two hours, the documentary spotlights a side of Hefner that has nothing to do with naked Bunnies, monogrammed silk pajamas, or epic parties at the Playboy Mansion.
As bizarre as it might sound on paper, Hefner is revealed to be one of the most important social reformers of the 20th century. Playboy, Activist and Rebel, which opens in Vancouver on Friday (August 27), is a genuine revelation, with the film’s subject more than living up to his billing. A hard-core libertarian, Hefner not only smashed sexual taboos but also waged cleverly subversive wars on American racism, McCarthyism, and the religious right. Revenue from the magazine also funded court cases that would eventually lead to the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade. Little of this has surfaced over the years, mostly because it’s not, well, nearly as sexy as the pursuits America’s foremost playboy is famous for.
The Oscar-winning Berman first met Hefner when he contacted her to express his admiration for Bix: “Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet”, a 1981 film she’d done on jazz cult figure Bix Beiderbecke. That led to a friendship being formed, which included her being invited to Friday movie nights at the mansion and, later, to his 80th birthday party.
“The birthday party was unbelievable: lights, food, girls—naked girls,” Berman recounts by phone from Los Angeles. “It was extraordinary. Sumptuous. But I was kind of watching with a bit of a detached eye, being kind of an observer. I thought, ”˜This is all well and good; here he is as the playboy, and that’s what I’m seeing here.’ But I knew there was so much more that he had done.”
Returning to her home in Toronto, the director came up with a proposal for a documentary, the idea being to reveal the other side of Hefner. After spending two months in research, she sent a treatment to the mansion, receiving a fax a day later asking when she wanted to start shooting.
When asked what intrigued him about the project, Hefner responds with: “I said a very long time ago that my life is, by its nature, like a Rorschach test, an inkblot test. People project their own particular dreams, fantasies, and prejudices on my life. What a person thinks about me is often a reflection of who they are. What was a revelation for me in Berman’s film was that she managed to dig so deeply.”
Helping Berman was how Hefner opened up his life to her. In a tradition that he picked up from his mother, he’s kept detailed scrapbooks of his life dating right back to his teens, and the director was given full access.
“He gave me complete editorial freedom” she says. “As a filmmaker, you can imagine how important that is, because you don’t want to end up making a valentine. That’s no fun. You want to be able to make something that looks at all sides and a film where the person who you are making it about isn’t looking over your shoulder at every turn. You want someone to leave you alone, and that’s what he did.”
Through a mix of archival footage and interviews with everyone from Gene Simmons and Pat Boone to Jesse Jackson and George Lucas, Berman exposes Hefner as a man who made a career out of bucking the system. During the McCarthy trials, he encouraged blacklisted writers to write for Playboy. He dispatched lawyers to work on cases tied into draconian sex laws, including helping to free an American disc jockey who was jailed in the American South for receiving a blow job.
At a time when racial segregation was still very much a part of life in America, he booked black comics into his Playboy clubs and black musicians on his syndicated 1969-70 television show, Playboy After Dark. “My folks were tradition-bound but very good people,” Hefner explains. “There was no prejudice in my home. You have to be taught to be prejudiced.”
What’s fascinating about the amount of groundbreaking that Hefner did was that he was a late bloomer. As the film makes clear, it wasn’t until he was in his late 20s that he decided to fully embrace his inner maverick and start a men’s magazine that would ultimately aim to be something more. “None of my peers—none of the people who I identified with—were marching to a different drummer,” Hefner says.
And if he has one wish for Playboy, Activist and Rebel, it’s that the world realizes that the beat that he’s marched to over the years is considerably more complex than people might believe.
“She [Berman] knew that there had been other documentaries on me, but she was very interested in doing one that took a different approach,” Hefner says. “She wanted to do a documentary on the part of my life that most people didn’t know about. Even with people who know me well, they will find that there are revelations within the film.”