On Saturday afternoon, I had the distinct pleasure — believe me — of sitting a row behind three hot hot young blondes (two were twins) in the jam-packed Elgin Theatre for the premiere of a hotly-anticipated documentary. What made the screening even more memorable was the fact that the subject of that documentary was their date for the evening; was sitting beside them; and was Hugh Hefner.
The film, “Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel,” was directed by Brigitte Berman, a veteran German filmmaker who first met Hefner, a jazz fan, after winning the best documentary Oscar for her film “Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got” (1985). They grew closer after Hefner, upon learning that Berman had another documentary in the can about 1920′s jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke but was unable to secure clearance for his music, interceded on her behalf so that it could be released. At his 80th birthday party a little over three years ago, she convinced him to allow her to tell his own story, with unprecedented total access to his family, friends, and materials, as well as complete creative freedom. Forget the E! television show “The Girls Next Door” — that, like the now-defunct Paris Hilton “reality” show “The Simple Life,” is about showing us not who its subject is but rather who we want them to be. This seems to show much more of the real-deal.
In the film, Hefner talks candidly about the unique journey that has been his life and career — which, as noted by his daughter, among others, has really been one in the same and resulted in one of the greatest media empires of all-time, if not the happiest of homes. Despite the man’s faults and oddities, you can’t help but walk away from this film with respect and admiration for his creativity, passion, and drive, not to mention a clear understanding of his central belief: people should be free to do whatever they please as long as they are not hurting themselves or others. Moreover, he’s so charming, articulate, and — in his old age — sympathetic that it’s hard to disagree. (After all, in the age of the Internet, when any kind of sexual deviance can be found for free with a simple click of a mouse, it’s hard not to look at Hefner and the once-controversial “Playboy” and feel the way I do about Monica Lewinsky: if only that was still our biggest problem!)
Though Berman employs the eye-catching approach of animating the autobiographical comics that Hefner has drawn throughout his life and interspersing them throughout the film, its most compelling moments are actually the talking-head interviews with those who know him. The cast of characters who pop up is eclectic, to say the least. You’ve got the football star Jim Brown to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who came to know and love Hefner for his early and important work to improve race relations. You’ve got actor James Caan gushing about the Playboy Mansion as a modern-day Shangri-La. You’ve got comedian Bill Maher (also a Mansion regular) celebrating Hefner’s defense of the First Amendment. You’ve got past “Playboy” Playmates like Jenny McCarthy reflecting on their awe of him. You’ve got people who once hated him and now love him, like reporter Mike Wallace; people who once hated him and still do, like aging feminist Susan Brownmiller, who once debated him years ago; and people who have been on both sides of the matter, like singer Joan Baez. It’s hard to say if the most insightful, thought-provoking, and outright funniest lines come from talk show host Dick Cavett or Kiss rock star Gene Simmons — and that, in itself, says it all.
The film’s original cut, according to Berman, ran an untenable 7 hours. The TIFF print came in at 135-minutes, which was still too long. But, considering that it chronicles a life that has spanned 83 years and a career that’s covered 56 of them, I suppose it’s not very long at all.
Photo: Hugh Hefner and “Hefner” director Brigitte Berman on the grounds of the Playboy mansion. Credit: TIFF.