Hugh Hefner, the man who founded the Playboy empire and helped spur the sexual liberation movement of the sixties is the subject of a new documentary by Canadian filmmaker Brigitte Berman.
Hefner spoke from the Playboy Mansion recently, reminiscing about the shocking effect his libertarian magazine had on the culture when he launched it in 1953. At that time, only “smut” magazines showed naked women, but he displayed them proudly alongside articles written by the leading authors and thinkers of the day. He’s drawn fire ever since.
“In so many quarters, my life is by nature is misunderstood. People’s perceptions of me and of Playboy are a Rorschach test, an inkblot test. A projection of other peoples fantasies and prejudices, depending on who you are and how you feel about yourself. Your own prejudices.”
Hefner says he was never troubled by the death threats or slams from powerful “enemies” as seen in the film. He’s blessed with confidence and sense of purpose.
“I think that frankly it hasn’t taken a lot of strength. It’s been a wonderful ride. I believed in the things that seemed to me to be the right things. There was some conflict along the way; you don’t change things without some conflict. It’s the nature of things. I started the magazine because I loved publishing and wanted to create a men’s lifestyle magazine but in the early sixties when it was so popular, I just felt I could introduce into it the other half of who I was – my interest in social sexual values and questions of race and war.”
Hefner’s activism in sexual, feminist, and civil rights is the heart of the film. He was arrested and sued but never lost a legal battle. He hired blacklisted writers to write for the magazine under their own names. He promoted the careers of black performers who were not permitted to entertain in certain places.
“I always felt it had to do with the rights of the individual. It’s what I believe in. And it’s one of the reasons the Playboy rabbit symbol is so popular still, especially overseas. It represents personal, political, and economic freedom.”
Hefner allowed Berman to study 4000 personal scrapbooks dating back to his childhood. They’ve known each other since 1985 but such access would seem to lay Hef, well, naked.
“Haha! Naked is what I’m all about. My life is an open book with illustrations and it started when I was a young journalist. I started recording my life in cartoon and scrapbooks, right up to the present day. I’d be looking through them and Brigitte was there, researching, deeply into it. I am proud of her and she is a wonderful lady.”
“There were a couple of moments I the film that brought me to tears. I’ve seen it in rough cuts many times but that last time Brigitte and I watched it together, I was moved to tears, seeing what we managed to create.”
The final chapter of the documentary looks at Hefner’s present life with his multiple girlfriends. The TV reality show The Girls Next Door shoots in the Playboy mansion following the lives of his various Playmate girlfriends. He says he has enjoyed unexpected benefits from the shows’ success.
“The girls became celebrities and I think that the rest of the world fell in love with them more than they had beforehand with life at the mansion. The average fan base expanded to include women of all ages. 70% of the audience is female. I've had letters from around the world from women who want to be my girlfriends. At least twice a week someone asks. And I’m 83!”
Anne Brodie for Metro News Canada