TORONTO — The words, “social activist,” “selfless humanitarian” and “deep thinker” don’t usually come to mind when describing Playboy empire founder Hugh Hefner, but filmmaker Brigitte Berman intends to rectify that situation with her surprising documentary, “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel.”
Stripping away the pipe, the silk pajamas and the (multiple) girls on each arm, Berman, whose 1986 profile, “Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got” took home an Oscar for best documentary feature, digs beyond the longstanding caricature, emerging with a revealing portrayal of a committed individual whose passions extended well beyond the fabled walls of the Playboy Mansion.
Effectively interweaving up-close-and-personal interviews with Hef, his cronies, admirers and detractors with a treasure trove of archival footage, Berman’s engaging — if a tad lengthy — portrait of the hedonist as a humble human rights defender shouldn’t require a clever pickup line to jump in bed with an experienced distributor.
While the octogenarian man of the hour has granted Berman unprecedented access to his life and times, it’s the latter that prove to be the real eye-opener here.
Gathering a lineup of usual suspects (manse regulars James Caan, Tony Bennett and Robert Culp; Playmates Shannon Tweed and Jenny McCarthy; pioneering feminist Susan Brownmiller) plus a number of unusual ones (George Lucas, Mike Wallace, Dr. Ruth), the film is at its most potent delineating Hefner’s role in the American civil rights movement, going beyond the pages of his magazine.
As ample footage from his hip Hef Jam variety shows, “Playboy’s Penthouse” and, later, “Playboy After Dark” demonstrates, racially integrated groups like Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and the Gateway Singers, and comics like Dick Gregory were provided rare television exposure during a time when club bookings were difficult.
When McCarthyism was in full swing, Hefner would regularly book such blacklisted performers as harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler and singer Josh White; while Country Joe and the Fish were invited to perform their anti-war anthem, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag.”
Flash forward to the present, and as Dick Cavett quips that Hefner gives wonderful hope to men over the age 100 everywhere, an oddly poignant truth remains.
Even at 83, Hef still needs some bunny to love.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
With: Hugh Hefner, Gene Simmons, Mike Wallace, Tony Bennett, Jenny McCarthy, Dick Gregory
Production companies: Metaphor Films, Victor Solnicki Prods, Bridge Film Prods., White Pine Pictures
Director: Brigitte Berman
Producers: Victor Solnicki, Brigitte Berman, Peter Raymont
Director of photography: John Westheuser
Music: James Mark Stewart
Editors: Brigitte Berman, Richard Vandentillaart
No rating, 135 minutes