Queen's University

Portrait of a playboy

An Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker reveals the story behind her controversial new biopic Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel.

Playboy magazine was never a part of our household, and so I did not grow up with an opinion – pro or con – of that magazine or of Hugh Hefner.

Playboy magazine was never a part of our household, and so I did not grow up with an opinion – pro or con – of that magazine or of Hugh Hefner.

[photo of Hugh Hefner]Chicago-born Hugh Hefner, at age 83 remains active in
Playboy Enterprises, acting as Editor-in-Chief and Chief
Creative Officer of Playboy Enterprises Inc., which has
annual worldwide revenues of $331 million.

Probably a good thing because it permitted me to have an open mind about what has ­always been a hugely controversial subject.

During my student years at Queen’s I was probably considered a feminist. I was outspoken and firmly believed that women were equal to men and could achieve whatever a man could achieve. And so I vigorously campaigned for and was elected to the Arts and Science Undergraduate Society student government. I later played an active role in the Film Studies Department, launching my filmmaking career while still a Queen’s student, editing and then directing short documentaries.

Flash forward to 1988. I had just won an Academy Award for Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got, my feature documentary about big band leader Artie Shaw, when one afternoon my phone rang, and on the line was Mary O’Connor, who introduced herself as Hugh Hefner’s executive assistant and asked, could I send Mr. Hefner a copy of my 1981 documentary on Bix Beiderbecke, as Hefner was a great jazz lover and Bix was one of his favorite jazz musicians. I didn’t quite believe her and politely requested that she ask Hefner to put this in writing. Three days later, I ­actually received a letter from “Hef”.

By then of course, I’d heard all the salacious stories about Playboy and Hugh Hefner, and had read the spicy articles about him, and so I was surprised by the call and Hefner’s letter, but also flattered by his request. The very next day, I sent a copy of my jazz documentary about Bix Beiderbecke to the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles. That was the beginning of my friendship with Hugh Hefner.

Going to the Mansion and meeting Hef for the first time, was one of those memorable moments in my life, actually coming face to face with an American icon, who as a woman, I did not completely approve of. To my surprise, Hugh Hefner was not what I had expected. Certainly, there were the pajamas, but there also was a very intelligent, honest, gracious, generous man with whom I discussed, amongst other things, jazz music and film.

That first visit eventually resulted in frequent visits to the Playboy Mansion and to Hef’s weekly movie nights – Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings at the Mansion are devoted to the screening of movies – be they classics or the newest crop of film releases. I quickly discovered that the famous/infamous Playboy Mansion was an idyllically beautiful Shangri-la, but it was much more than that.

During those weekly movie screenings, to which Hef invites his sizable group of friends, both male and female, the average age of the invited group is 60-plus. And after each screening there would be lively discussions about the film we’d just watched. Getting to know Hugh Hefner, I discovered that there was much more to him than his playboy image, which much of the media loves to describe, embellish, berate, or dismiss. Not a week goes by when there isn’t an article or blog entry about Hefner published somewhere in the world.

In April 2006, when I attended Hef’s 80th birthday party, which was a swinging affair with thousands of guests, gorgeous women and men, more often than not scantily clad in colourful lingerie or bathrobes, I decided then and there that I wanted to make a documentary about “the other side of Hugh Hefner and Playboy,” a documentary that would deal with what many people consider to be the unusual paradox of the man.

[photo of Hugh Hefner and Brigitte Berman]Brigitte Berman spent countless hours talking with and
getting to know a pajama-clad Hugh Hefner at his Los
Angeles home, the legendary Playboy Mansion.

Quite a number of documentaries had already been made about Playboy and Hefner and his legendary lifestyle, yet none had dealt with Hefner’s “more serious” aspect – his social, cultural, and political influence on North America. I was astounded that within a day of presenting him with a written treatment, I was given not only the go-ahead to make the documentary, but also unprecedented access to everything in the Hefner archives, one of the largest private archives in the world.

For a filmmaker and research buff like myself, that was a dream come true. For months I pored through more than 2,000 scrapbooks, in a small attic on the third floor of the Mansion, overlooking of all places, the extraordinary, lush grounds, which served as an inspiration throughout my research. Often at three am, Hef would walk in quietly and work on the continuation of these scrapbooks – large, bound books that hold everything about his life from age 15 onward and also include articles and pictures about all the pivotal moments in modern North American and European history.

Then began the hard part, developing not a Valentine to Hef, but a film that would be even-handed and that would show all sides of this complex individual, that would dig much deeper than his surface image. I wanted to explore the paradox of the man – on the one hand, the hedonistic playboy, pursuing his own sexual odyssey and living a highly controversial lifestyle, and on the other hand, the humanitarian who has been a catalyst for progressive change on a whole array of social and political issues: racial equality, First Amendments rights, abortion rights, sexual freedom, censorship and social justice.

What really surprised me was the fact that Hefner from the very beginning made it clear I would have creative freedom. Without that freedom, of course, I would not have started the film.

I researched, shot, and edited film over a period of three years. It was filmed throughout the United States – Los Angeles, New York City, upstate New York, Sarasota, Chicago, San Francisco, and in northern California. A large part of the filming took place at the Mansion, where I filmed Hef the serious magazine icon and businessman, Hef the loyal friend to people he’s known for decades, Hef the perfectionist and task-master, and Hef the lover of parties and women.

What particularly fascinates me about Hef is that while many know him only as a hedonistic, sensual playboy, there is a whole other and far more interesting side to him – a driven, talented publisher of a groundbreaking magazine who, from practically nothing, created a world empire. A man who is a social activist at the forefront of countless progressive causes. A man who took great risks in breaking the colour line in his Playboy clubs and TV shows, who defied the blacklist in the McCarthy ’50s decade, who fought antiquated and absurd sex laws that regulated private conduct in the nation’s bedrooms, who also 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. And so I sought out the people who would openly speak about him – both pro and con.

[photo of Brigitte Berman]Academy Award-winning filmmaker Brigitte Berman was
surprised to discover that when she got to know him, Hugh
Hefner was “not what I expected.”

One of the great benefits as a documentary filmmaker is the fact that one has a chance to meet and interview some of the most interesting people in the world – renowned CBS television journalist, Mike Wallace, whom I interviewed just days before he ­suffered a major heart attack; my own personal favorite, folk-singer Joan Baez; Dick Gregory, the black civil rights activist and comedian; Susan Brownmiller, the passionate feminist who still considers Hef “the enemy”; Pete Seeger, folksinger and activist; crooner and Christian activist Pat Boone, in whose opinion Hef broke the moral compass of America; the inimitable and very funny rock star and entrepreneur Gene Simmons, and so many more.

Over the decades, Hefner fought countless battles, in the course of which he was arrested for obscenity, branded a pornographer by Reagan’s Meese Commission, went through a boycott of Playboy magazine, was under FBI surveillance, and was set up on a fabricated drug charge. But he has won every legal battle he ever fought.

And, of course, his legendary lifestyle has continued to this day.

After nine months of editing, I cut the film down from its original seven-and-a-half-hour length to just a little over two hours.

This a film about a man people think they know, but don’t really know. And what I have noticed, as the film has been written about since its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, is that Hefner and Playboy are more controversial today than ever before. Some people like or loathe Hefner. The others are somewhere in ­between. People come out of the film saying: “I didn’t know that about him. I had no idea.” Or some call it a much too flattering love letter to Hef. What was important for me was to make a balanced and factually correct documentary, interspersed with a lot of humour and entertainment. I portrayed the events as they occurred, documented by historical facts. But Hefner is a polarizing figure and there are people who are outraged that a film dares to show that Hefner has in fact “a serious side.”

Hefner is a lightning rod, and having now developed a thicker skin, I’m delighted by the controversy and the diversity of reaction that my film is generating.

I was determined not to tell the audience how to feel or what to think; that’s why there is no narration in the documentary, so that the audience can make up its own mind about him. That’s what’s happening now.

People are arguing, pro and con, about Hugh Hefner, and that makes me feel that as a filmmaker I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.

At the recent Toronto festival world premiere, screened at the magnificent Elgin Theatre – which Hef attended – I was thrilled with the two standing ovations the film and Hef ­received from the audience. What has particularly pleased me during the screenings, was how entertaining and engrossing the film was for the audience.

What will Hefner’s place be in the social history of the twentieth century? Definitely not a saint, but “a Playboy, Activist and Rebel” – someone who has brought about ­progressive change in our society.

 

Queen's Alumni Review, 2009 Issue #4Queen's Alumni Review
2009 Issue #4
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