Documentary filmmaker Brigitte Berman relates a story about showing her film, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, Rebel, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City: "A woman stood up after the film and said, 'A friend asked me what film I was going to see and I said a film about Hugh Hefner' and she said, 'How could you see a film about that man who objectifies women?' The woman told me after: 'I was amazed to find out the things that are in your film. It not only shows a different side of Hugh Hefner to America, it also shows a lot about America that we need to know.'" The film "totally changes the preconceptions of people about a man."
Berman is a Queens University-educated CBC veteran and an Oscar-winning documentarian (1985's Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got). Her film about Hef has its origins in the two-decade friendship between the two, which was born out of Hef's admiration for Berman's 1981 film Bix: Ain't None of Them Play Like Him Yet? on Bix Beiderbecke, who happens to be Hef's favourite musician. In 1990, Berman was invited to one of the Friday-night movie screenings at his famous LA mansion (she can't recall the film) and got a first taste of the Playboy philosophy, beyond the bombshell centrefolds.
"When a film gets shown on a Friday night, they're old films and we always talk about them afterward," she says. "Ideas are talked about; ideas that were in the film. So that's what you begin to hear---the ideas that he believes in. I began to see a different side of him."
Berman continues: "I'm also a filmmaker and I do research people to find out more about them. Slowly I did get a bigger picture of Hefner than you normally would see or would hear about---you know, the man in the pyjamas, who used to smoke a pipe and the gorgeous girls up at the mansion. There is also a weightier, more serious, very involved activist side to him. So that was when I decided to make the film. I wanted to show that side of him because not everybody knew that side of him."
She found an invaluable source and perspective on Hefner's life in his voluminous collection of black leather-bound scrapbooks of newspaper clippings, formal documents and Playboy archival material. "He has over 2,000 scrapbooks that are still growing," she says. "They are the most interesting, amazing treasure trove, not only of his life, but also of American history, social history, cultural history. Everything that has taken place---it's all in those scrapbooks. Any important event."
Indeed, as the film and Hef's tour of the scrapbooks within it show, his life and career have actively buffeted up against modern American history in significant ways. The mansion (then in Chicago) hosted civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, and Reverend Jesse Jackson is interviewed in the film discussing Hefner's involvement in the movement.
Hefner also paid close attention to the issues discussed in Playboy's Forum pages and was willing to deploy his legal team to aid in court battles fighting what Hef preceived to be repressive laws. In one instance, he assisted a radio DJ who had been jailed under draconian sex laws for receiving a then-illegal blow-job.
Comedian Bill Maher puts it this way in the film: "There are probably people out there today enjoying freedoms who have no idea that Hugh Hefner was the pioneer who got all the arrows."
"I discovered a strong integrity again, and again and again in his scrapbooks and in his life," Berman says. "It doesn't mean there is not the playboy side. The playboy side is very real. He made his money off Playboy, he is/was a playboy, but what he also did with that is extraordinary. A man of tremendous complexities who dared to stick his neck out when other people just wouldn't."
Berman knows Hefner is polarizing, and that some cannot get beyond the fact Playboy magazine is his creation. "He was the first, so whenever you're the first, you're out there," she says. "Bette Davis had a saying: 'It's the fruit at the top of the trees the birds always peck at.'"