In Brigitte Berman’s new film, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, the Academy Award winning Canadian filmmaker profiles the outspoken, flamboyant founder of the Playboy empire and reveals Hefner as both a hedonistic playboy, but, more importantly, as the man who’s been a groundbreaking advocate and catalyst for First Amendment rights and social and racial justice.
When Hefner launched Playboy magazine in 1953, he became a champion of the sexual revolution and, immediately, the forces of Church and State initiated a war against him that raged over the decades. With humor and insight, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel captures Hefner’s fierce battles with the government, the religious right, and militant feminists. The film also features compelling interviews with a remarkable Who’s Who of the decades and rare footage that present a snapshot of the life of an extraordinary man and the controversies that surrounded him. Continued after the jump:
We sat down for an exclusive interview with Brigitte who talked to us about what inspired her to make a documentary about Hugh Hefner. She told us what it was like to have unprecedented access to Hefner’s personal archives, how he has been a catalyst for progressive change on a broad array of social and political issues, and why she considers him one of the most influential media figures of the 20th century.
Q: What inspired you to want to make a documentary film about Hugh Hefner?
BB: I got to know Mr. Hefner, of course, many years prior because of my film on Bix Beiderbecke, the jazz cornetist. I made a feature documentary about him and Mr. Hefner wanted to see it because Bix Beiderbecke is one of his favorite musicians. So, I sent him down a tape and that is really how we first connected. Then, he wanted to show my Artie Shaw film and the Bix Beiderbecke film in the Playball Jazz Festival and I came to L.A. and met him for the first time. The friendship grew over the years and flash forward a few years and I hear that every year he has quite a lavish party for his birthday. The 80th I felt really was a very important, momentous birthday and I wanted to go to it. I came down with my husband and partner, Victor Solnicki, who’s also the co-producer of the film, and it was an amazing event. I was really happy to be there. It was lush and wonderful and just what you would expect a party to be at the Playboy Mansion. But, at the same time, I thought I knew more about him. I knew about the other serious side, the other pages of his life, and I thought this is not all of Hefner. He was 80 years old and nobody has ever done it before and I think I would like to tackle this, to tell the story of Hef the playboy, but also Hef the activist, Hef the rebel. And he’s all three. So I decided to write a treatment and I sent it down to L.A., to the mansion, and a day later a fax came back from Mr. Hefner saying he really liked the treatment and he gave me carte blanche. I was amazed. I was amazed it came so fast.
Q: Mr. Hefner gave you unprecedented access to his personal archives, something which he’s never done before.
BB: Never. Total trust.
BB: I was a friend, I am a friend of Mr. Hefner’s, but when you take on a film of this magnitude and of course it was not a cheap film, it was funded all in Canada and funded by various federal government film institutions and provincial, so you have a real responsibility that you make a true and honest and even handed film and you’ve also got to entertain an audience. Starting the film, I was faced with over 2,000 scrapbooks, a video archive that took hours upon hours upon hours to view, most of which I actually transcribed myself into my computer just so I would have everything. I just got to know everything and then slowly began to fill the pages with what I had learned and out of that emerged more and more of the story that I wanted to tell and new things I uncovered.
In essence actually the story got richer and deeper the more I went through the scrapbooks. It was quite time consuming but an extraordinary process because there you walk through over 50 years of history of Hefner’s life, of American life, of everything in any way associated with him – good, bad, all of it. I gleaned a lot from all of that. It helped me to figure out who I wanted to interview. Of course, the feminists were important, the conservatives were important, the Christian Right, to get footage of early detractors who were very outspoken against Hefner, as well as people like Dick Gregory with whom he broke the color line, the color barrier in the Chicago Playboy Club, Jesse Jackson, Mike Wallace and Joan Baez, believe it or not, who was on this Playboy After Dark show. All these people emerged as people that I wanted to interview.
Slowly the skeleton of the film took shape, and once I had all that, then my task was how am I going to assemble all of this into a film which is the most daunting task in the world. My first assembly, in fact, was 7-1/2 hours long. No visuals yet just people talking. It was brave just to watch it. I had people who I deeply trusted and who also were strong enough to kind of take issue with me if they didn’t agree with something and I knew they were smart enough that I had to listen to them. So that was a very good process that we kind of checked each other and they watched it from the very beginning and it slowly grew shorter and shorter and shorter until it’s now two hours and credits.
Q: How has Hefner been a catalyst for progressive change on a whole array of social and political issues such as racial equality, First Amendment rights, abortion rights, sexual freedom, censorship and social justice?
BB: Well let me start with civil rights. Aside from the momentous event that changed Dick Gregory’s life, where he broke the color barrier and it just opened up the line for all other black comedians because a black singer could be in a Playboy Club but not a stand-up comedian, it was not allowed. It had never been done before. Of his Playboy shows – Playboy’s Penthouse 1959, Playboy After Dark 1969 –the Playboy’s Penthouse show was the more important one in many ways because that was a time where the country was still under the reverberations of the Un-American Activities Committee and he had people like Pete Seeger who was branded a Communist, Larry Adler who was branded a Communist, he had these people on his show, people that nobody else [would], Pete Seeger was not allowed on any other show at all, period, and Hefner didn’t care. He had black and white people mixing as guests in the party setting of the show. That was unheard of and the Seven States refused to buy those shows.
He didn’t care. If he lost money because of that, it didn’t matter. His principles were stronger than that. He was going to do what was right, humanly right. And these people were his friends. They were all his friends. So, he was just paving the way and not giving big speeches and all of that, but he was doing it by actually doing it on television out in the open and showing it in his magazine. He had Dalton Trumbo write an article about the Academy Awards. Dalton Trumbo was considered [blacklisted]. It was unheard of – not that Dalton Trumbo wrote the article but that his name actually appeared as Dalton Trumbo. It was not a pseudonym. Dalton Trumbo thought, well, of course, it would be under a pseudonym. Hef said “No, no way.” And that outraged people. It outraged Ronald Reagan who was then the president of the Screen Actors Guild in California who began a series of letters that I found in the scrapbook where he was outraged at Hefner and called him Un-American for daring to do this. And Hefner replied right back saying “What I’m doing is what’s American, what is in the Constitution, this First Amendment right in the Constitution.” And [he was] fighting for people’s right to have an abortion. When a woman was put in prison for manslaughter, he sent his legal team down, got her out of prison and the argument was used to later help change the abortion laws in Florida.
You know when he was in University he wrote a paper about the outdated sex laws in the United States. It was very well researched and he got an “A” on his research, a “B+” on the conclusion. It was no surprise that later in Playboy, in the Playboy Forum, he would take on openly these outdated laws and opened up the dialogue on them, had people write in about them, you know, prison reform, the Vietnam war, psychiatric reform, homosexuality, women’s rights. On and on and on it goes. And quite an amazing part of Playboy magazine was that Forum and it still exists. It’s still part of Playboy magazine. But, at the same time, you have the naked girls. You’ve got the very raunchy cartoons at times or the very funny, wonderful cartoons and the amazing articles and interviews. As Joan Baez herself said, he used the magazine and his show, Playboy After Dark, on which he appeared as a tool to help. It was a place where people to whom nobody else would listen they had a voice. And that was important. That was important to her.
Q: Susan Brownmiller accused Hefner of treating women as sexual objects. However, if you look at his magazine, he not only took the girl next door and put her in it, he also gave her dimension by emphasizing her unique beauty, background and education. Do you think his social activism in fact helped advance women’s rights?
BB: That’s right. It definitely did and he always employed women and not just in menial tasks but wherever in his company. His daughter ran the company for many years. It didn’t matter to him. If you’re good, you’re good. You’re there, do your job. And people have stayed with him for many, many years. His closest right-hand person is a woman, Mary O’Connor, who has been with him close to 40 years by now. These people stay with him. She’s interviewed in the film and speaks very openly about what it’s like to work with him. It’s not always easy. He’s a perfectionist and he really demands perfectionism. She was very, very open about it but at the same time very deeply appreciates him as well. In that sense, it was truly important for me not to do a Valentine, and even a person who’s been with him for so many years says “I quit a couple of times because he was difficult.” So it’s saying it as it is. There’s no way of getting around it. Other people say it. But I had the people say it that really matter, where you know it’s absolutely right. So I would very carefully choose who would say what. And, in Susan Brownmiller, I had a very good, outspoken feminist. I did try to get Gloria Steinem. I tried to get her three times, but she refused to be interviewed three times so I had to give up.
Q: From your perspective, how has the look of the playmates and the magazine evolved over the years as male and female thinking and society have changed?
BB: I’m a great fan of the early playmates. I look at those playmates and they’re beautiful. I mean, they’re just gorgeous the way they’re photographed. But, you know, I look at the playmates even today and I’ve met them. There’s a different look. You can tell that often some work has been done. That’s their business. Again, I’m not going to judge on that, my goodness. But, there is a different look. But how different is that look from Marilyn Monroe who was a very, very sexy woman, a very, very sexy first photograph in Playboy magazine and can you imagine for that to come out in 1953? Society, America took a look at that. My goodness, no wonder it took America by storm.
Q: As publisher of a magazine who tried to reach as many people as possible, how did you see him going about building an audience with his conversations about social rights?
BB: It’s interesting. I think it was the combination of the sexy female and the girl next door female, and at the same time the Playboy interview was not there yet at the beginning, but the interesting articles were. Ray Bradbury’s article was right there in the early issues, you know, “Fahrenheit 451,” and this incredible story of “The Crooked Man” (by Charles Beaumont) about a society where homosexuality would be the norm and heterosexuality would be the abnormal and nobody would touch that story. Esquire turned it down. He published it, so he was daring in bold ways and I think it was that unusual combination that attracted an audience. He was the first and he put [together], I guess, you know, brains and beauty. It’s always been about brains and beauty, hasn’t it? There it is altogether and it still is.
Q: He struck an interesting balance between art and humanity and used his magazine to interact with society in that way.
BB: That’s right. Absolutely. The Playboy Forum, which is still running, is absolutely like that. Yes, I agree.
Q: What do you think it is that makes Hugh Hefner one of the most influential media figures of the 20th century?
BB: The fact that he has managed to accomplish what he has accomplished on such a huge, grandiose scale, that he has broken so many taboos, has been the first in so many ways with the Playboy Clubs, the Playboy Bunny, and the big plane,The Big Bunny. He just did everything on such a grand scale in the humane, in the civil rights, and in the Playboy side. But you don’t really know about the civil rights side and a lot of that other side because for many press when they look at him it’s always what’s the most obvious. It’s the eye candy. It’s what they think an audience wants to see. It’s a documentary, and it’s an entertaining documentary, but I’ve learned I may not get the numbers that a feature film will get. I may not get the numbers that Joan Rivers will get or is getting. But, at the same time, people come out of the film and they are absolutely amazed at what they did not know, what they have found out, and how they’ve been entertained while finding it out and the laughter. So, you look at this man, you watch all these things, and here he is today and he’s still going strong and he just saved the Hollywood Sign. So why is he such a big media figure? Well, it’s just by being Hugh Hefner.
Q: Playboy magazine did some incredible interviews back in the day of amazing personalities ranging from Princess Grace to Fidel Castro to Betty Friedan. Were the interviews more exciting in the early days or are they just as exciting today?
BB: I don’t read Playboy every month, I must confess. But I have watched the Playboy interviews, looked at them over the years, and there are strong ones and then there are some that are not quite as interesting to me. Personally, I’m not that interested in main star actors today — some of them, yes; others, no. But political figures I’m more interest in, you know, civil rights leaders, even as daring a one as [George Lincoln] Rockwell. He was extremely daring to have that in his magazine and then to have Alex Haley go and interview him. There are the two of them – the Nazi leader and the black writer, Alex Haley, and Rockwell did not know that he was black. It was quite astonishing the result – a very important Playboy interview. I would say that for myself, I would slightly prefer the earlier ones but there are some even today that I do like. It’s hard to say. You have your favorites and then every month there’s a new one.
Q: Mike Wallace initially thought Hefner was just making what I believe he called a dirty little magazine…
BB: Absolutely. A dirty book.
Q: And then, he began to realize what Hefner was doing for civil rights by having people of color on his show and opening up his Playboy Clubs to everyone. Are human rights and dealing with people as equals something that has always been very important to Hefner?
BB: Always. I mean, even when I was looking through the scrapbooks when he was young, it was important to him. He would stand up for the person that was bullied — always, always, always. He wrote for the school paper. He made movies himself, he with his close buddies. The cartoons. He started to take on the school decisions like the kind of dances that they should be having. Yeah, he was a rebel even then. So, in many ways, you can see the seeds of who he became in later years. At least I could. It’s interesting because when I did my research, I decided to begin with the scrapbook when Playboy itself, the magazine, first started and went on to its first successes and then I went back and looked at the early scrapbooks. I’m really glad I did that because I would read the early scrapbooks and go through them with a more informed mind. I would actually be able to pick up on those seeds.
Q: How did you select the people that you interviewed in order to present a balanced portrait of Hugh Hefner?
BB: I’ll tell you the most difficult people to get were the naysayers. They were the ones who were the least interested in being interviewed. I don’t know whether they didn’t want to say it publicly. I don’t know what it was. But there were so many people I tried to get. Don’t ask me who because I don’t want to embarrass them in any way. But I went after quite a number of them and got “no” after “no” after “no.” And then I got Pat Boone who I think is very good and a Christian activist who still believes that Hef broke the moral fiber of America. What was also interesting is that he was around at the very beginning and did subscribe to Playboy and then stopped subscribing. So, he was a very interesting kind of typical mindset at that time and now still stands up for the morality of America. Susan Brownmiller, of course, was very, very important to me and a very passionate feminist and doesn’t want to know about the things that Hef did as an activist, doesn’t want to know about it at all. So she stays rooted very passionately in her feminist viewpoint. But I think she can’t… she has to be like that. I tried to pick people that were of both sides, of both sexes, some younger ones, funny ones, people that knew him for a long time, people that knew him just for a short time, and people that worked with him, women that worked with him. I was trying to get a really balanced perspective on this type of person and I was trying not to leave anybody out – the black people, Reverend Malcolm Boyd, you know, the gay reverend, very, very important. So all of those voices, each one an important piece, I believe, of the puzzle that makes Hugh Hefner.
Q: You’ve got Playboy, the girls, the mansion, the centerfolds, and then there’s this whole other side of Hefner who’s a very complex, socially concerned person. Did you enter into this with any preconceived notions about the man and at what point did you realize there was a bigger side to him or did you always know that?
BB: When I decided to make the film, I decided with that knowledge, which is why I wanted to make the film. When I wrote the treatment, I researched more and I learned more. And then when I really began my research, it was just verified a thousand times over. But I also saw, not a “but;” but I also saw at the same time the Playboy side, you know, Mr. Playboy and all the girls, etc., etc., and all the relationships and all of that and I made that part of the film. Like Shannon speaks very candidly about what it was like to be a girlfriend of Mr. Hefner’s and that’s a very important part of the film I believe – her viewpoint as a girlfriend, ex-girlfriend, but not one who holds a grudge. One who is smart. I like to go for relatively smart people because they make more sense. I didn’t want a National Enquirer type of film. Nor did I want a Valentine type of film. Either one is wrong I think.
Q: He seems to genuinely appreciate women and enjoys them as both friends and lovers. He also seems to place a high value on human principles and never sells them out. Can you talk about that?
BB: No, never ever, ever, ever – from a young age right till today. I haven’t seen one iota anywhere in the scrapbooks or observed where he sold out on that. I’ve been an observer sporadically but I observe very closely and I look at the little things because I think the little things are the things that say the most very often. For instance, in the film, when he gives the dog to Sammy Davis Jr. and the delight on his face. I watch his face and that says a lot about him and that’s real. That’s very, very real. That’s very much him. And his joy about the babies on the plane, the Vietnam war orphans. But at the same time [he is] the lover of many women. So it’s just ever so complex as we all are as human beings. None of us want to be judged. We would hate to be judged, so what right do we have to judge somebody else, but we do it.
Q: What was the biggest surprise or discovery you made about him in the course of making this film?
BB: I would say one of the thing which I kind of knew was how deep his friendships were and went and how much he helped his friends when they were in trouble and stood up for them because I would see letters and I would see proof of that. You know, nobody knows that. It’s not in the film but it really told me a great many things – the sense of how he feels about friendship is very much a part of the film so it is there indirectly. And the strength of his integrity and how far he stuck his neck out like with the Ronald Reagan, Dalton Trumbo issue, just how he was unafraid. He was unafraid to take on the post office. I found reading the letters in the old Forums, you know, going through them, very, very, very fascinating and the kind of stand and analysis that Playboy magazine would give. And behind all of that, of course, was Hefner. The Forum was very, very important to him.
One other thing is that I did not know until I found out in the magazine in the scrapbook that he had done this paper early on about the antiquated sex laws in America. I had no idea about that. Well again, there it was at University what he does. He does it. He researches it state by state by state and what they are and what is defined and it was outrageous. I show that in the film and then he takes that on in the Forum later.
I guess the big surprise was ultimately how many examples there were of his activism and him as the rebel, because the examples of the Playboy, we all know about and we see readily and they’re in the scrapbooks readily. But the other side just got deeper and deeper and made me very excited about making the film because I realized it was all there. It was all there. It made me feel good about the film. It made me feel as a filmmaker it was a treasure trove and so I could really dig into it and really have all the visuals and everything I could ever think of and the shows. It was just a dream come true as a filmmaker.
Q: What do you have coming up next?
BB: Oh, I can’t talk about that yet. I’m sorry. I’ve got several films that I’ve got on the plate but next really is getting this film out. The baby’s been born and it’s walked a little bit. Now I’ve got to get it out there, really going to school and get it into theaters and hopefully people will come to watch it. So my very next, next thing is to help get people interested and also it’s going to be shown in Australia and South Korea at film festivals and get it to go around the world.
Q: Will your future projects also be documentaries?
BB: I’ve done dramas. I’ve done a feature film. I’ve done some dramas, a play, short dramatic films. The one that’s in the works is a feature film.
Q: Can you tell me anything more about it?
Q: How would you like Hugh Hefner to be remembered?
BB: As a man of amazing integrity who dared to be different.
Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel opens in theaters on July 30th.