By William Wolf


A colorful, far-ranging look at the life and philosophy of “Playboy” publisher Hugh Hefner and his role in changing attitudes toward sex highlights director Brigitte Berman’s documentary “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel,” which was showcased at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. The close-up look is immensely entertaining, revealing and packed with lively commentary and fascinating clips. Yes, it covers Hefner’s personal life with his ménage of women, but the perspective is much more expansive than that.

Berman, who won an Oscar for her documentary “Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got,” reports having access to Hefner with total freedom as to the making of the film. While Hefner comes off looking impressive in the work, the film also strives for an objective overview of the man and his world. For example, included is an amusing clip of a discussion between Hefner and feminists who accused him of denigrating women with his bunny motif and naked photo spreads.

Few may realize Hefner’s influence on civil rights and free speech. When owners of Playboy Club franchises in segregated areas refused to allow racial integration, he bought back the franchises, insisting that he would not have a Playboy Club associated with segregation. The film also chronicles his support for feminist causes, such as abortion rights, and his stands on the rights to publish without censorship.

There are clips and comments from such notables as Gene Simmons, Mike Wallace and Reverend Jesse Jackson, and harking back to the days of his Chicago-based television program, there are performance clips of such entertainers as Tony Bennett and Sammy Davis, Jr. Hefner himself provides extensive comments on a range of subjects, and the film enables one to get a good sense of the man, his personality and his independent attitudes.

Footage of his Playboy mansion in California demonstrates the free-wheeling lifestyle one associates with Hefner and his setting a pattern of sexual liberation. This makes for amusing moments that can cause envy among men who might yearn to be in Hefner’s position. But the serious side also takes note of the publisher’s record in printing early work of some of the country’s best writers. That gave the magazine intellectual cover for all of the nudity it contained, and the rubric of those who said they read it for the articles is duly noted with a tongue-in-cheek attitude. But the fact remains that “Playboy” developed an important literary aspect as part of its makeup.

The film is thoroughly involving, although it could benefit from some cutting. There is a certain amount of repetition of points made. But the total impact is one of an intelligent, amusing and revealing look at the man who turned American sexual culture upside down and had a world impact as well. All of this is put together smartly by Berman, and the work deserves wide viewing.

Hefner, now 83, showed up for a Q and A at the Festival’s public screening of the film and acquitted himself with wit and self-confidence. He described himself as “a kid who had an impossible dream and lived to see it come true.” As for the future, he said that he had two sons interested in carrying on with “Playboy.” When an audience member noted that Hefner was getting on in years, he drew a huge laugh and applause, when he countered, “My mother lived to 101.”


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