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Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

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Reviewed by Marc Glassman

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel
Brigitte Berman, director & co-producer
Feature documentary featuring: Hefner, Susan Brownmiller, Dick Cavett, Jim Brown, Joan Baez, Pat Boone, Gene Simmons, Dick Gregory, Ruth Westheimer, Jesse Jackson, Shannon Tweed

The aging Lothario of the Playboy Empire, Hugh Hefner has been a significant pop-culture figure for over six decades. Hef rose to prominence in Chicago in the mid-‘50s, selling not only a magazine but a lifestyle—and as he would put it, a philosophy of life. His vision is still potent: witness Mad Men, the most successful TV series of the year, which is all about sex, style and ambition. Mid-20th century American values are back—and Hef never went away.

Canadian director Brigitte Berman, an Oscar winner for the jazzy bio-pic Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got, has believed that Hefner is relevant since she first met him over 20 years ago. She convinced Hef to give her access to him, his archives and friends—the enemies were no problem to contact—and the result is a very well produced feature length profile of Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel.

Berman’s thesis is that Hefner is, at heart, a thinker and political activist, intent on freeing people from their prejudices. Which means that people should follow their impulses regarding sex, defying the dictates of conventional morality. It can be argued that Hef won that battle decades ago at least in the affluent West: Churches and the Law generally turn a blind eye towards “straight” sex outside of marital constraints.

Winning for free expression in sexuality meant that Playboy, with its Bunnies and naked ladies, could impart unimagined wealth on Hefner. The magazine built his empire, regularly selling one million copies per-issue in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Not content with that signal success, he began to write about his philosophy of free expression in every issue of the magazine. At the same time, Hef created a series of Playboy nightclubs and a TV show that espoused his ideas in a late-night-party meets variety show format.

On TV, in the clubs and the magazine, Hefner embraced the civil rights movement and fought against McCarthyism, the blacklist and the Vietnam War. He had Pete Seeger and Joan Baez on his TV shows and published Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. He embraced controversy and fought against totalitarianism and hypocrisy. Tellingly, he fought anti-abortion laws and the religious right, earning the hatred of millions.

Berman’s film offers a Who’s Who of Hefner defenders ranging from Reverend Jesse Jackson and sports hero/activist Jim Brown to old folkies Baez and Seeger. She also includes interviews with old foes like feminist Susan Brownmiller and Christian fundamentalist pop star Pat Boone, who attack Hefner for his hedonistic lifestyle, hypocrisy and lack of morality.

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel features a multitude of star interviews, great graphics and excellent archival material. It’s fun to watch from start to finish. Should Berman have been tougher with her genial—and let’s admit it, politically committed—host?

Perhaps. Having interviewed Berman, it’s clear that she made a film that tells Hef’s story the way she believes it happened. When I
asked about her own assessment of Hefner, Berman replied: “I see his life as an amalgamation of conflicts—many quite bitter. His big triumph is that he stayed true to himself.”

No doubt he has. A darker version of Hefner’s life will undoubtedly emerge one day. For the moment, Berman’s version of the Playboy philosopher is in theatres, to be enjoyed. And considered.

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