LOS ANGELES—Last night, AVN was privileged to attend the premiere of a new documentary, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, which played to a capacity crowd at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood. The showing was presented by the UCLA Film & TV Archive, a film preservation society to which Hefner has been a generous contributor.
After the showing, a brief question-and-answer session was held with the 84-year-old Hefner and the film's director, Brigitte Berman, veteran of more than 100 similar documentary undertakings.
The 124 minute film traces Hefner's life from its early days, with the Playboy empire founder noting that in his family, "we didn't hug each other a lot"—a practice that he thinks partly shaped his later relationships.
Signing his work as "Goo Hefner," the mogul was a cartoonist from his early teens, as reflected in the earliest of the more than 2,000 scrapbooks he's created and maintained since the 1930s. Several of the cartoons are featured in the film, and a few were digitally animated to dramatize, for instance, his memories of him and his staff choosing a name for their new magazine. They'd originally wanted to call it "Stag Party," but the owners of the already-existing Stag men's magazine objected and threatened to sue. Hef and staff offered such possibilities as "Satyr" and "Gent" (also already an existing magazine) but settled on a name that they knew would be immediately recognizable and would need no explanation: Playboy.
So with the $8,000 Hefner managed to raise from family and friends, they printed 70,000 copies of the first issue (December, '53) and sold more than 52,000 of them—no doubt partly because of its nude pin-up shot of Marilyn Monroe, which Hefner bought the rights to from a Chicago calendar maker. (In fact, most of the early Playmates were actually recycled calendar shots.)
The movie also covers some of the world-famous writers who got their start in Playboy, or who simply wanted to be seen in its pages. For instance, science-fiction author Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 was first serialized in Playboy, and Hefner was the first to publish the amazingly talented fantasist Charles Beaumont. Other renown scribes have included Arthur C. Clarke, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Crichton and Irwin Shaw. In addition, a large number of Playboy interviews were conducted by Alex Haley, author of Roots, which epic tale arose from a short story Haley had printed in the magazine.
Speakng of interviews, the film is chock full of them: including supporters like Gene Simmons, Shannon Tweed, David Steinberg, Jenny McCarthy, James Caan and Dick Gregory; former employees like Nat Lehrmann and even daughter Christie Hefner; and even detractors like Susan Brownmiller, co-founder of Women Against Pornography; singer Pat Boone and hyper-religious local LA radio host Dennis Prager.
But perhaps what is most striking about the film is its wealth of information on Hefner's political and social activism, often overt but sometimes subtle. For instance, Hefner's late-night television shows, "Playboy's Penthouse" and later "Playboy After Dark," were famous not only for showcasing the "Playboy style," but also for the variety of guests who appeared. The film features long excerpts from Sammy Davis Jr.'s and Dick Gregory's appearances, and notes that those segments had to be edited out for re-broadcast in the South. Hefner was also a long-time supporter of Lenny Bruce, and even arranged for Bruce's autobiography, "How to Talk Dirty and Influence People" (largely ghostwritten by AVN Online columnist Paul Krassner), to be published.
Hefner also created the Playboy Jazz Festivals, although he admitted during the interview session that the music that's most commonly played at his mansion are big-band recordings from the '30s and '40s, though Hef also has a particular liking for jazz cornetist and pianist Bix Beiderbecke.
Even the founding of the Playboy Key Clubs was steeped in politics. Originally, Hefner offered the clubs as franchises, but when he found that the owners in Miami and New Orleans were excluding black keyholders from entry, he bought back the franchises and opened them to people of all colors—which didn't sit well with local political leaders and law enforcement. Even in New York City, his club ran intro trouble. He managed to secure a liquor license, but the club also needed an entertainment license, and according to the movie, the chief of the entertainment license bureau was a staunch Catholic who didn't like Hefner's irreligious attitudes, and it took Hefner almost a year of court battles to overturn the denial of that license.
Though not a user himself, Hefner also helped found the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)—and when his personal secretary Bobbi Arnstein was caught helping her then-boyfriend sell cocaine, federal officials tried to browbeat her into setting Hef up for a drug bust—harassment that eventually led to Arnstein's suicide. (The later suicide of Playmate Dorothy Stratten is also covered in the film.)
Simply put, the film is a wealth of information on Hefner and his businesses, but it isn't above dropping little tidbits along the way, such as the fact that Ronald Reagan, while president of the Screen Actors Guild, was an FBI informant—or that one of Hefner's college term papers was titled, "Sex Behavior and the U.S. Law," which detailed the prison terms citizens could face in the late 1940s for engaging in adultery, public nudity, sodomy and other sexual behaviors. (The paper got an A-, but was knocked down to a B+ because the professor didn't like the paper's conclusion that the laws were ludicrous.)
The Q&A following the film's showing was also interesting, though all of the audience's questions had to be whispered in Hefner's "good ear" by the moderator. For instance, when asked about why he kept over 2,000 scrapbooks, each meticulously numbered and annotated, Hefner replied, "I'm a pack-rat—I have everything."
Adult entrepreneur Kim Ayres was in the audience, and asked Hefner about his work in saving the world-famous Hollywood sign. Hef gave a long explanation of his fundraising activities in 1978 to repair the then-decrepit sign, and again in the past two years to buy the land around the sign to prevent real estate developers from putting up houses that would obscure easy viewing of the Hollywood landmark.
Finally, one audience member asked simply, "What's it like to be Hugh Hefner?"
"Even better than it seems," came the immediate answer.
The movie will have its New York opening on July 23, and in Los Angeles on July 30.