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Hefner redux

Re-evaluating an American icon



"The American Dream didn't come from Washington. It was created in Hollywood by new immigrants with enlightened ideas..."

- Hugh Hefner, 2009

He was the very embodiment of the brand. The ultimate playboy; the quintessential party guy. Surrounded by young women in skimpy bunny outfits and clad in his trademark smoking jacket and ubiquitous pipe, Hugh Hefner became the emblem for an entirely different path from the repressive and paranoid culture of 1950s America. Hedonism was okay, his new men's magazine proclaimed. And sex was okay too. In fact, as he puts it today: "My goal was to produce a lifestyle magazine for young men that didn't associate sex with sin." And then he laughs. "I wanted to get the message out that sex was a natural part of the romantic relationship. And that good girls like sex too..." He pauses. Laughs again. "Believe me - back in the America of 1953, that was the really revolutionary move!"

And therein lies the crux of a surprisingly interesting story. For although he's best known as the founder of Playboy - and the entertainment empire that grew in its wake - the 83-year-old Hefner (Hef to his friends) has tilted at the windmills of Puritan hypocrisy all his life. Whether challenging the sexual hang-ups of post-war America, or fighting against the still-rampant racial segregation of the Deep South, or arguing for more humane drug laws, or even speaking out against Washington's militaristic incursions overseas, Hefner and Playboy defined the leading edge of enlightened liberalism for half a century.

Surprising, isn't it? But then there's much to the Hefner story that defies the stereotype.

"This is what convinced me to make a movie about his life," says Canadian filmmaker Brigitte Berman. "I was fascinated by the paradox of Hugh Hefner. On the one hand, you've got this sexual, sensual man who lives the kind of lifestyle that many of us find difficult to relate to. On the other, you have a committed activist who never gets tired of fighting the good fight."

An Academy Award winner in her own right (for 1988's Artie Shaw: Time Is All You've Got ), Berman was "astounded and delighted" in 2006 when she got the go-ahead from Hefner to make a documentary on his life. She then spent months pouring through his considerable archives. And what she found there only confirmed what she'd felt from the moment she met the guy. As she puts it: "Hef is more true to himself than just about anybody I've ever met." She takes a breath. Continues. "Like most other people, I had a certain Hefner in mind when I started on this project. But the more I did my research, the more I discovered different layers to the man. As it turns out, he was the perfect subject for a film."