According to Oscar-winning filmmaker Brigitte Berman, Hugh Hefner acts as Master of Ceremonies during Playboy Mansion movie nights. “Classics on Friday and Saturday,” reveals the petite blonde, with a heavy German accent. “The latest, new films on Sunday.”
Who are the lucky participants attending these swank screenings, enjoyed from a plush theater equipped with enough couches and chairs to seat 100 people?
“He has a regular family of attendees,” describes Berman, whose 1985 documentary “Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got,” won an Academy Award. “Before he passed away, Robert Culp would be there. Leonard Maltin and his wife. Chuck McCann used to go. Hef’s older son, David. Roger Ebert used to come when he was in town.”
With a hearty chuckle, Berman ponders the fact that most movie night attendees are older than 65.
On an early June afternoon, I’ve taken an aisle seat inside Capitol Hill’s Egyptian Theater, where Berman’s latest documentary film, “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel,” makes its West Coast debut at the Seattle International Film Festival. It’s not the Playboy Mansion. However, like the geriatric talking heads populating her detailed biopic, tonight’s audience boasts a significant number of bespectacled, gray haired attendees – testimony to the longevity of Hugh Hefner’s legacy.
In anticipation of the screening, my prurient mission was to count the onscreen breasts. After all, Hefner’s Playboy Magazine is to nude centerfolds what Ted Nugent is to firearms. In 1953, Marilyn Monroe’s bodacious birthday suit could be inspected from a slick, gatefold sleeve that has continued to define Playboy… for 57 years. That’s a lot of breasts.
However, “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel,” isn’t interested in flesh. Clothe his women and extinguish his tobacco pipe, suggests Berman, and you’ll find a much deeper and more complicated man.
When a less tolerant nation refused to broadcast black comedians or mixed-race bands, Hefner prioritized human connection over racist color lines. He helmed massive jazz festivals in Chicago and Los Angeles. He fought to overturn ludicrous, outdated sex laws, sending out legal teams to defend imprisoned “violators” of such mandates. He endured a trumped-up drug charge, and mourned a staff suicide. Berman borrows a leaf from Hefner’s own book, by stripping away assumptions, revealing unseen details and uncovering intriguing dimensions about her iconic subject.
Think Hugh Hefner is all silk bathrobes and D-cupped bunnies? Read on.
So many of the interviewees in “Hugh Hefner…” are seniors. In fact, Kiss’ Gene Simmons might be the youngest person in the film, and he’s past middle age.
Jenny McCarthy is a younger one. She just broke up with… the funny guy (laughs).
Yeah. I wanted to have some younger blood in the film. It’s very important to have that energy. I did speak with his two sons, and on the film’s DVD version, I want to include that interview. They were terrific.
The editing must have been unbelievable. How much film did you have to whittle down before final cut?
In interviews alone, I’d say 120 tapes that were forty minutes each. They were all transcribed, then I pulled out what I wanted to use. I amassed that first, into a 7 ½ hour rough cut. Just the interviews. Then the DVD’s, television shows, old footage…there’s all of that. But first, I just dealt with the bare bones structure of making the film make sense. The 7 ½ hours didn’t go to two hours just like that. It’s like baking a bread (laughs). It’s painstaking!
My first craft is to be an editor. I’m very good at that, but I take my time. I take something out, and then say, “Let’s go.” It’s rare that I put it back in. It’s the odd time that I put something back in. I might tape it to the wall, and say, “Remember this. Remember that.” Other times, it just goes into a folder, and it’s forgotten. At the very end, I’ll read over the transcripts one more time, and decide if there’s anything else to filter in and fit in. It’s a real juggling act – like a huge puzzle on the floor where you slowly put the pieces together. You don’t know what the puzzle will look like. I love that job!
So the exhaustive editing is an exciting challenge, and not a drag…
It’s wonderful. I began editing in September, and I had it down to 4 ½ hours by January. After that, I began to filter in some of the visuals, to bring the film to life. Eventually, it all went down to 3 ½, then 3 ¼ …. Slowly.
You’re originally from Frankfurt, Germany. Do Europeans have a less puritanical perspective on nudity than Americans?
Absolutely! The Swedes, the Germans, the French – nakedness, nude beaches… it’s all around. They are not puritanistic the way Americans are. At the same time, though, they are fascinated by America. They need to understand America, because now we’re a much closer world… we’re all brothers and sisters in some way. But that aspect was hard for them to understand, yet fascinating. Then, of course, a guy like (Hefner), who was the rebel, and who stuck his neck out again and again, taking on all these causes, they would understand. They would understand taking on the post office (for refusing to distribute Playboy), a very powerful force. That’s not easy. If you’re on the Enemies List of three Presidents (as Hefner was), that’s not something you want to be (laughs)! So on a personal level, he’s very fascinating (to Europeans).
The whole sexual thing, not so much. But as the one who put Marilyn Monroe and the magazine out there when his country was so puritanical – that is more interesting (to Europeans). The magazine sold like hot cakes. Hefner was surprised himself. He didn’t know it would sell out, and didn’t even put a date on the first issue. There was so much delight in seeing how many it sold – something he started on his kitchen table.
If Hugh Hefner had been European, and had initially put out Playboy somewhere other than America, do you think the magazine would have been such a phenomenon?
Well, there is Playboy in France, Germany… in nearly all countries they have Playboy. In China, there’s no Playboy. I believe it is published in the Soviet Union. People read it all over the world. It’s because he had a certain vision for that magazine. There was the raunchiness of the “Girl Next Door,” but the way the women were photographed was absolutely beautiful. It is a little different. And (Europeans) were fascinated by his lifestyle, and the mansion. He has a scrapbook containing articles (about his everyday life) from French, Italian, Swedish and German magazines. He had them all translated. They are all bedazzled. He is like a sheik (laughter), who does all this. He has the girls, and the mansion.
So many current “men’s magazines,” and the recent explosion of Internet porn sites, feature nudity which is very blatantly pornographic. Playboy is now almost puritanical, relative to what’s out there now.
It celebrates female beauty. The whole. The totality. I don’t think the others are a celebration. I personally find them ugly. Somebody else can read them. But in Playboy, there is a beauty to it. Sometimes it goes too far for my tastes. But there’s a definite beauty. And good articles.
Beyond the nudes, there are other staples, like the interviews, and Forum page. People forget about this.
The Forum page took on some major issues. If people had a problem, and wrote in, it was taken seriously.
So if a letter came in, you knew Hefner would take it under his wing if he felt strongly about it…
An early Forum letter from a disc jockey (sentenced to several years in prison after being “serviced” by a female fan, before Hefner’s legal team successfully rallied for his release) said a lot about him. Hefner said, “He wrote to me.” That’s how he sees it. It’s very revealing. He took it very seriously, and sent out his legal team.
There was another letter written in the early seventies by a woman in Florida. She was given fifteen years in prison for having an abortion. She wrote to Playboy. Hef was outraged about that. He sent his legal person down to her, who looked over the case and got permission from the judge to re-investigate. Because of that, she was let off her fifteen-year sentence. She was given temporary house arrest, and then set free.
Many of Hefner’s social and political stances seemed to be catalysts for larger cultural shifts. For example, his willingness to feature black performers on his early television shows at a time in which this was considered taboo.
Yes. He was always the first one. A pioneer. Just like Bill Maher said: “He took all the arrows.”