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Hefner Exposed in New Doc

22 Nov, 2010 By: Billy Gil

Hugh Hefner and Brigitte Berman

Hugh Hefner considers himself a “humanist.” He thinks gay people should be allowed to get married and serve in the armed forces. He understands that the Tea Party is reflective of people who are fed up with the government, but thinks another side of it is bigoted and “a little nutty.”

If those sentiments sound surprising, Brigitte Berman’s documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel should be an eye-opener. The film comes to DVD Dec. 7, from Phase 4 Films, at $29.99.

Berman in 1981 made the film Bix: ‘Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet,’ about jazz musician Leon Bismark “Bix” Beiderbecke, whom Hefner loved, as an avid jazz fan (Berman also directed the Academy Award-winning 1985 documentary Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got). He released Bix on DVD on his Playboy Jazz label, thus beginning a relationship that culminated in her asking Hefner to make a film about him.

“I got to know him over the years and got to know there was so much more to him than the Playboy side,” Berman said.

He gave her unprecedented access to him and files covering his life and career.

“What I didn’t expect was that it would turn out to be a special kind of documentary and reveal a part of my life many people didn’t know about,” Hefner says. “It’s very rewarding.”

Berman interviews a wide array of celebrities and others to discuss the legacy of Hefner, which may have been forgotten by some in the age of Internet pornography and Hefner’s TV show “The Girls Next Door.” Sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, former playmate and TV personality Jenny McCarthy, rock star Gene Simmons, comedian Bill Maher, actor James Caan, and singer Joan Baez are some of the famous folk that appear to explore the impact made by Hefner’s Playboy empire. Through perseverance, Berman also was able to get the participation of Reverend Jesse Jackson (who was interviewed in the pages of Playboy in 1969 because of Hefner’s unwavering support for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and George Lucas.

Berman’s rough cut of the film was seven-and-a-half hours long. She showed Hefner another early cut of the film, who then approved, sending Berman to make her final 124-minute version. The end result paints a complex picture of Hefner as a man who fought against repression and McCarthyism, who wanted people to have a healthier view of sex, who didn’t get enough affection at home as a child, who had a failed marriage before deciding to start Playboy.

The film plays almost as a progression of attitudes toward sex, race and censorship during the 20th century. Controversies followed Hefner throughout his career, including the publication of a Ray Bradbury story in which the future sees homosexuality as the norm and heterosexuality as a perversion; his arrest when relatively tame photos of actress Jayne Mansfield were deemed obscene, perhaps in retaliation for editorial defense of pioneering, controversial comedian Lenny Bruce; and his “Playboy Penthouse” TV show, a seemingly innocuous late-night variety show that featured a then-revolutionary view toward race, with both black and white party guests and featured artists, and mixed-race groups that would be turned down from other shows.

“Hugh Hefner’s name evokes a kneejerk reaction almost immediately,” Berman says. “The young people who don’t know too much about him [see the film and] are amazed, and even people in their 40s. But the older people who are set in their ways who don’t like him, who absolutely do not like him … they see it as an unbalanced film.”

To her credit, Berman includes the points of views of those who don’t agree with what he does, such as Pat Boone, who call him a pornographer, and several feminist thinkers, who offer complex criticisms of his work — in a clip from a 1970 episode of the “Dick Cavett Show,” feminist Susan Brownmiller hilariously says she would believe Hefner supported women’s rights “the day [he was] willing to come out here with a cotton tail attached to [his] rear end.”

However, Hefner feels the film portrays him accurately and says he doesn’t mind the negative comments about him.

“Each person has their point of view, but it’s people expressing their opinions,” he says. “That is the nature of America. That’s half of why I started the magazine in the first place.”

Though the film does overwhelmingly portray Hefner positively, as a freedom fighter of sorts, he would be the last person to want to censor any of its negative aspects.

“My folks were very repressed and puritanical,” he says. “I saw the hurtful side of that. I recognized that long before I started the magazine.

“From the very beginning, I thought I was fighting the good fight for things that really matter. I think that the focus of the documentary … is the part that people don’t see. They see the playmates, the centerfolds … they don’t see the good writing in the magazine and the impact it’s had in terms of race and the women’s movement and the changing of law regarding the human condition.

“I really don’t have any secrets. I said it before, my life is an open book — with illustrations.”

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