“Did you see the film? Are you one of the ones who thinks it was biased?” So begins my phone interview with Briggitte Berman, director of the new documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, Rebel. Her movie, (which Dennis Harvey will review in this week's SFBG) has been criticized for being an overly laudatory look at the life of the man who's sparked a thousand sexual hegemonies, though few would deny that Berman's put together an entertaining ride. But enough about cinematic merits. Did she get loose at the Playboy mansion while filming? What are those things like for a woman actually wearing clothes?
Wrong question. “I don't like big parties. I don't go to big parties. I am a film maker,” Bergman replies, stiffly.
Now, were I composing a piece on the Sultan of Smut, Hefner's bacchanals would be one of the first places I'd hit to get background -- even if that film, as Berman is quick to specify, seeks to examine not “merely” Hef's personal life so much as the social legacy he's created.
And let's be real, the man is a walking reality TV show: his personal excesses are the social legacy. Perhaps therein lies the key to the way the film shies away from the meaty dilemma at the heart of Hef. Berman just doesn't care for the naughty bits.
After all, she clearly prefers Hef's famously couth intellectual side. The filmmaker first came into contact with the icon via his admiration for her film on the jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke. Their acquaintance has taken place not in the grotto, but in the well-appointed Mansion dens where Hefner stages his regular film nights, screening old classics for an audience of similarly ancient chums.
Couth Hef, gettin' things done. Photo courtesy of Playboy Archives
This is the Hefner one reads for the articles, and it's the one that Playboy, Activist, and Rebel makes the most of. We get to hear much about the man's pro-integration stance (his Playboy clubs were the first mixed-race venues to host Black stand-up comedians), his crusade for women's reproductive rights, and his battles with governmental persecution – his persistence in hiring black-listed artists for his TV shows was truly admirable. Berman catches Jesse Jackson on-screen calling Hef an activist, for chrissakes.
It's all, like I said, really interesting, and will probably teach viewers a thing or three about the civil rights movement and precursors to the Sexual Revolution. But the key word here is precursors. When we look back on the magazine's heyday from our queasy 21st century enlightenment, it's plain to see all was not groovy in the land of rabbit ears.
Which brings us to the bunny suits, the corset, heels, and floppy ear ensemble sported by the female employees of Hef's infamous string of nightclubs. It always comes back to the bunny suits. Now, I'm not one to cry foul on the basis of corset alone – I know many a woman who gets off on having a cinched waist and four-inch spikes on her hind paws. There's a moment in the film where Hefner is called out on a talk show by two feminists. They ask him, if the bunny suits aren't meant to be demeaning and reductive, why doesn't Hef strap on one of those cotton tails himself?
His answer is unconvincing, and the women have a valid point. If Hefner was so into being more open about our sex lives, why were men never shown cavorting through the debaucherous scenes of his pictorials? “What I was trying to say quite frankly,” he shares in one of his many lengthy on-screen interviews in Playboy, Activist, and Rebel “is that sex is okay and nice girls like sex too.” Well, we all know what Hef's “nice girl” looks like. Leaving aside all issues of body type normativity on the pages of Playboy, (we shouldn't) is/was this really a vision of sexual freedom, or the freedom of one man to be sexual in his one, very particular way?
Berman didn't look at this, and she should have. “I have made several documentaries about complex individuals and he is a very complex man. I didn't make a film about dolphins. I leave that to other filmmakers,” she tells me (oh snap, The Cove, you Lisa Frank binder, you – Berman's calling you out!). But the Hefner film differs from Berman's other depictions of complex figures in that we already know how the person in question has colored our lives. Hef is a pop culture powerhouse, unlike Bix Beiderbecke or Artie Shaw, some of Berman's previous targets.
So it's not enough to give token opposition air time to one or two Boomer feminist thinkers who will merely tell us the same things we already know about disrespectful imagery and the like. For me, they didn't come close to countering Gene Simmons telling the camera that women are “more sexually disconnected” because our genitals aren't rubbing against our pants leg 24/7. Scenes with Dr. Ruth notwithstanding, it was time for Berman to roll out someone who understands the value of what Hef did, but also someone who could critique his methods in a way that's constructive to the generations that are not scandalized by that Marilyn Monroe centerfold in Playboy's debut issue.
Before we hung up, I had one more query for Berman. “Does Hef get it when people called him misogynistic? Does he see what they taking issue with?”
“If you ask me whether he has a sense,” she began. “I suggest you ask him that. The totality of who Mr. Hefner is – no film can ever reveal that. Sometimes the person him or herself doesn't know that.”
But at the ripe old age of 84, one would like to think Mr. Hefner would be working on it. Berman could have spent her time on this film getting her hands a little dirty. She could have asked Hef to consider how he might have constructed the imagery of his empire – gasp! -- differently. Now that would be some good reality TV.
Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel starts Fri/20 at Lumiere Theatre and Shattuck Cinemas