The Instrumental Hefner

What impressed her most about Hefner? She said it was his willingness to fight for what he believed in, whether it was breaking down segregation in the entertainment business or defying the McCarthy-era Communist witch hunt by hiring blacklisted writers.

 

Interview with Brigitte Berman, director of Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel
Seattle International Film Festival, June 6, 2010

I recently had a chance to sit down and talk with Brigitte Berman, director of the documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel which was shown as part of the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival. I will say at the outset that due to time limitations we were only able to scratch the surface concerning the complex issues of gender, sexuality, and sexism which are bound to come up in any discussion of the publisher of Playboy so perhaps we can take up those issues further at some later point. Or maybe a more global conversation is required with other people weighing in: I see it as a virtue that this film is raises important cultural issues without trying to provide complete answers for them, making it an excellent springboard to discussion.

I should also point out that the primary subject of Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel is not Playboy (either the magazine or the empire) but Hugh Hefner, and that its great virtue is in showing what a complex and politically-active person he was. Hefner may made have made his bucks with centerfolds (yes I know Playboy also published Kurt Vonnegut and the like, but so did lots of magazines which didn’t sell nearly as many copies) but he used the power provided by his fame and fortune to support many liberal causes including freedom of speech and of the press, racial integration, abortion rights, and marijuana legalization.

So first of all I wondered how Berman got interested in making a documentary about Hefner. She had already directed several well-received documentaries including the Oscar-winning Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got and Bix: ‘Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet’, and it turns out that the latter film provided the connection. Bix Beiderbecke was one of Hefner’s favorite musicians and he asked for a copy of the film for his collection. This led to a friendship and after attending Hefner’s 80th birthday party in 2006 Berman decided to make a documentary that would highlight aspects of Hefner not generally known to the public—in particular his roles as a hardworking magazine publisher and progressive social activist.

This raises two questions: what’s it like to make a documentary about someone you consider a friend? And did Hefner ever try to control or dictate what the film would say about him? Berman says that it wasn’t a problem making a film about Hefner because she respected his work and he respected hers. She had access to all of Hefner’s archives (including the scrapbooks which you will see again and again in the film) but maintained complete editorial and artistic freedom over her work. In fact, she said Hefner made only one suggestion after seeing the completed film, which she incorporated because it made artistic sense: beginning the film with the black-and-white footage of the Playboy jet.

What impressed her most about Hefner? She said it was his willingness to fight for what he believed in, whether it was breaking down segregation in the entertainment business (Playboy’s Penthouse, a television program broadcast in 1959-1960, was not carried in some states because of the premise that white and African-American guests were attending the same party) or defying the McCarthy-era Communist witch hunt by hiring blacklisted writers. Not one to shrink from a fight, Hefner was proud of being on the “enemies lists” of J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.

One question which I felt I had to bring up, given the subject matter, is whether either or both of a) Hefner and b) Playboy objectify women. For the sake of argument let’s just use the Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_objectification) definition of sexual objectification as “regarding or treating another person merely as an instrument (object) towards the person’s sexual pleasure” and “as an attitude that regards a person as a commodity or as an object for use, with insufficient regard for a person’s personality.” Berman’s opinion, which is communicated in the film as well as in this interview, is that Hefner did not objectify women in his personal dealings with them. If his publishing empire rested on pictures of naked women which implied their availability to the male reader, that was just good business and the models were well paid for their work (and of course they were there by choice in the first place). The question of whether the fantasy world created by Playboy objectifies women is a topic we did not have time to discuss sufficiently, so I’ll leave that one open.

I always give the filmmaker the last word, so is there anything Berman would like to say about her film? Yes, in fact she had two statements: “When my Mom passed away about a year and a half ago, she said ‘Brigitte, you must be very strong when this film comes out because you will get caught up in the Hefner controversy.’ I didn’t believe her but she was right.” And “The one thing that bothers me is when the film is reviewed not as a film but as a film about a man they can’t stand and they come out disliking him and looking for things to pick apart.” | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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