I have always been one who liked to look behind the public veneer and get to the crux of a person or an issue, finding that more interesting than what meets the eye. One of those individuals for me has always been Hugh Hefner. At first blush, what comes to mind for many when one hears the name Hugh Hefner is Playboy, sex, centerfold, mansion parties and Playboy Bunnies. Now while it’s true that Playboy and all that its fantasy entails is the cornerstone of Hugh Hefner and his empire, once you go through the looking glass, you find that there is so much more to Hugh Hefner than how media has portrayed him for so many years. Oscar winning director Brigitte Berman is someone who chose to look through that glass and discover the man behind the myth - HUGH HEFNER: PLAYBOY, ACTIVIST, REBEL.
One would think that Hef, now in his 80's, would be living the high life and celebrating retirement. That is so far from the truth it’s laughable. As Berman quickly shows us, Hef is anything but retired and, in fact, is as active and proactive now as he was when he first conceived the idea of Playboy, and above all, he’s got a mind that doesn’t quit. As sharp as can be, Hef has the ability to recall the minutest details of days gone by and as he regales us with his life history, it is easy to hear in his voice, the events of which he is most proud.
In HUGH HEFNER: PLAYBOY, ACTIVIST, REBEL, Berman and Hef take us on a journey that highlights some of his proudest accomplishments, especially the Playboy Foundation, and the championing he has done over the years for the First Amendment and Civil Rights. It may come as a surprise to many that Hef and the Foundation have continually paid legal fees and become involved in matters that would lead to constitutional changes, such as Roe v. Wade. That’s right. The Playboy Foundation provided legal representation to a Florida woman charged with manslaughter for having an abortion. It is that case, that became one of the bases for Roe v. Wade. To hear the details from Hef is beyond fascinating for not only activists or historians, but anyone with a desire for knowledge, something for which Hef has an unquenchable thirst.
Large segments of the documentary are devoted to Hef’s dedication to, appreciation for, and promotion of American authors. Take a look back in time and you will find first or early publishings of then unknown authors like Hunter S. Thompson, Alex Haley, James Ellroy and yes, even Ray Bradbury. Playboy set the bar high with its standard of excellence standard from its authors, an excellence that the majority of publications over the years have only hoped to attain but have failed at miserably. Going toe-to-toe with the "establishment" many of Hef’s own editorials became smoking guns, particularly in issues involving free speech.
Little tidbits like Hef’s post-graduate paper on the archaic and arcane laws of sex in the United States written as part of his psychology thesis are fascinating, as are the hundreds of cartoons that Hef himself has penned over the years.
Never one to shy away from controversy, Berman incorporates extensive footage from Hef’s tv variety shows, "Playboy's Penthouse" and, later, "Playboy After Dark". Notable is that in a time when segregation was still in full swing, Hef celebrated racially integrated groups through art, culture, music and movies. Going beyond racial integration, Hef was one of the few to decry McCarthyism and book blacklisted performers.
While Hef created Playboy as a means "to create a healthier attitude about sex" that was by no means his sole mission. And although Playboy and sex is what the masses know, Berman elected to minimize this aspect of his life. Even though sex was a basis for so many events in the Hefner world and the grounds for what would become many humanitarian accomplishments, Berman never goes tabloid and even when showing Mansion parties, tamed things down to concentrate on the unknown side of Hugh Hefner.
Interweaving archival footage from Hef’s personal collection as well as newsreels and other documentation, is Hef’s narrative punctuated with memories and commentaries from old cronies from the past like James Caan, including those of "opposing views" to Hef’s sexual beliefs like Pat Boone, and a few surprises like Dr. Ruth, Mike Wallace and even Gene Simmons, the man who "stole" Playmate Shannon Tweed from Hef several decades ago. (And FYI, Simmons idolizes Hef.) Interesting is that the interview subjects selected by Berman were based solely on her review of photos and seeing who seemed to be the most engaging or seen most frequently with Hef. For the most parts, interviews are glowing and complimentary, depicting a warm, caring and extremely intelligent man.
Notable omissions to the documentary involve the financial problems of Playboy enterprises over the years or the minimal role that Hef’s daughter Christie played in revitalizing the company. Most disappointing, however, is that when addressing the future of publishing, Berman elected to speak with Dave Boyle rather than include Hef's opinions and thoughts on the future of publishing and media.
When you finish watching HUGH HEFNER: PLAYBOY, ACTIVIST, REBEL, you will walk away with a deeper understanding of the man. He is truly brilliant; a visionary. But there is also a sadness - especially when you see that the interview subjects are all old time comrades, many of whom who themselves are pushing their own expiration dates. Very sad was to see Robert Culp, whom we just lost several months ago. This documentary is a reminder that everyone, even Hugh Hefner, no matter how immortal or godlike or fantastical them may seem, is only a mere man.
Hugh Hefner is a man who values life, his friends and core human values. He has never set out to offend or hurt anyone. He always wants the best for everyone, for people to be happy, but he also wants to stimulate their minds, even moreso than their libidos. His appreciation for the past and the tender care that he takes of it, and the reverence he shows for it in light of the future tells more about the man than anything. I for one could listen to him talk for days and never tire of hearing what he has to say from a sociopolitcal, economic and humanitarian standpoint. HUGH HEFNER: PLAYBOY, ACTIVIST, REBEL.....and above all, humanitarian.
Directed by Brigitte Berman.
Directed by Brigitte Berman.