The age-old adage of “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is indeed a universal truth. Take Hugh Hefner, routinely associated with sex, beautiful women, the Playboy empire, nudity, Playboy bunnies and more sex. In addition, Hefner has also been branded by many with labels, such as “a pornographer” and an “extremely dangerous [man] responsible for causing major damage to the moral fabric of America.”
There’s another maxim that says: “There’s more to a man than what means the eye.” This is certainly apropos for Hefner, as unveiled in the documentary “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel” (Metaphor Films, 2010, 124 minutes), a film by Academy Award-winner Brigitte Berman, which opens on July 30 at the Angelika Film Center, 18 West Houston Street in New York.
In this film, producer-director-writer Berman takes us on a fascinating journey in which we are given the opportunity to observe the multi-faceted, far-reaching scope of Hefner from two distinct perspectives. The first is as “the hedonistic Playboy, pursuing his sexual odyssey and living a highly controversial lifestyle.”
The other viewpoint Berman provides us with is that of Hefner the humanitarian, who has been a catalyst for progressive change on a whole array of social and political issues. These issues include racial equality, First Amendment rights, abortion rights, sexual freedom, censorship and social justice.
Berman, who has produced more than 100 documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, was given unparalleled access to Hefner’s immense personal archives. In an unprecedented move, he also agreed that she would maintain creative and editorial freedom of the work, which features interviews with such notables as Dick Gregory, Jim Brown, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, James Caan, Robert Culp, Tony Curtis, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Tony Bennett, George Lucas, Hugh Hefner’s daughter, Christie Hefner, and Playmates of the Year Shannon Tweed (1982); and author-activist Jenny McCarthy (1994).
In addition, the film features highlights, vintage clips and revelations by such legends as Lenny Bruce, William F. Buckley Jr., Miles Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Dorothy Donegan, the Gateway Singer, Dizzy Gillespie, Alex Haley, Buddy Rich and Josh White.
For Berman, crafting this film went beyond the persona of Mr. Hefner as one of the most influential and controversial media figures of the 20th century and the man who built the internationally famous Playboy empire. She states: “What fascinates me about Hef is that while many know him only as a hedonistic, sensual Playboy, a legendary lover of countless beautiful women, there is a whole other and far more interesting, far sexier side to him as well–a driven, talented publisher of a groundbreaking magazine who is also a social activist at the forefront of countless progressive causes–a man who took great risks in breaking the color line in his Playboy clubs and TV shows, who defied the blacklist in the McCarthy ’50s decade, fought antiquated and absurd sex laws that regulated private conduct in the nation’s bedrooms, provided legal teams to fight anti-abortion laws that eventually led to Roe vs. Wade and campaigned against censorship and for the individual’s right to freedom of expression on all fronts.”
Hefner also was not influenced by the omnipresent color divide in America, opting instead to take a stand. For example, as the film exposes, “In the early 1960s, when Playboy Clubs in Miami and New Orleans would not allow Black patrons into the clubs, Hefner used his own money to buy back the franchises from the owners at a loss, ensuring that institutions bearing the Playboy name would be racially integrated.”
Comedian-activist Dick Gregory got his break in the Chicago Playboy Club when he became the first African-American hired by Hefner to perform in front of a white audience. In effect, this opening broke down the doors for other stand-up comedians such as the great Flip Wilson, Slappy White and Richard Pryor, among others.
On the issue of race, Berman also points out: “His 1959 ‘Playboy’s Penthouse’ television shows aired at a time when nobody dared to feature Black and white people together, either as performers or as audience participants in a party setting. Hefner didn’t think twice about it. Those were his friends, and that’s the way he was. Southern states wouldn’t buy the shows, but he didn’t care. He’s a man of strong principles.”
In the film, NFL great Jim Brown weighed in with this comment: “Hefner fought against injustice and fought to change and to bring about a truth in this country. He maximized his influence to make this a better country, and that’s all he was trying to do, to make it an honest country.”
The film also depicts many other important causes of Hefner’s, including fighting against blacklisting during the McCarthy era, championing the sexual revolution and providing assistance for Vietnamese war children by providing his plane, the Big Bunny, for transportation.
While sitting through a screening of “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel” at the MoMA with my dear friend Geoffrey Holder, a special invited guest of Ms. Berman and her partner, Victor Solnicki, of Metaphor Films, I was fascinated by the breadth and depth of Mr. Hefner and his contributions to America and the world. Through Berman’s comprehensive and exquisite film, I got the opportunity to get to know the brilliant and controversial Mr. Hefner, an exceptional man who fought to make this world a more humane one…oh yeah, and a sexier one too.
As Brown shared: “There are only a few warriors left from the ’60s, and Hef is definitely one of them.”