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updated: 10/21/2010 4:51 PM

Documentary shows 'the other side of Hef'

A new Hugh Hefner documentary casts the controversial Chicagoan in a different light

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  • Hugh Hefner gave filmmaker Brigitte Berman unprecedented access in the making of her documentary, "Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel."

    Hugh Hefner gave filmmaker Brigitte Berman unprecedented access in the making of her documentary, "Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel."

  • A new documentary looks at the controversial contributions of Hugh Hefner, photographed here at the Playboy mansion in the early 1970s.

    A new documentary looks at the controversial contributions of Hugh Hefner, photographed here at the Playboy mansion in the early 1970s.

By Raymond Benson
Daily Herald correspondent

Hugh Hefner and Playboy, the magazine he founded 57 years ago, are one of the great and most controversial American business success stories of the 20th century.

His empire spanned the globe. Yet, Hefner and his magazine attracted a lot of anger, especially during the early years a far more conservative time.

In the 1950s and '60s, government officials in Chicago and across the state labeled Hefner a "pornographer" and sought to close Playboy down.

Hefner, 84, hasn't forgotten. But he's still glad to return this month to the city he called home for many years.

"It's true that Chicago wasn't too kind to me back then," Hefner said. "That was when (Richard) Daley Sr. was in power. It was a very Catholic town. But with Daley Jr. in charge, those attitudes changed. I'm happy to return. It will be a special occasion because for the first time I'm bringing my two sons, Marston and Cooper, and we'll revisit the old neighborhood."

Not only that, Hefner will be Chicago for the Oct. 29 premiere of the new, prize-winning feature documentary, "Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel." The film will play for a week at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago.

The documentary covers the many aspects of Hefner's complex individualism. "Hef" is world-famous as a hedonistic pajama-clad playboy who has publicly pursued his own sexual odyssey and flamboyant lifestyle. Critics have accused him of degrading women; one even labelled him a "sexual fascist."

Yet, he is also a catalyst for change on social and political issues such as racial equality, sexual freedom, censorship and social justice.

"Hef loves jazz and he liked my film about Bix Beiderbecke," said Brigitte Berman, the writer, director and co-producer of the documentary. "I was invited to his 80th birthday party, which was one-sided all about the girls and the magazine and all that but as I got to know him, I discovered there was so much more to him. I decided to do the film about the other side of Hef, the one few people really know about."       Berman, who won the documentary feature Oscar for her 1987 film "Artie Shaw: Time is All You've Got," was given unprecedented access to Hefner's extensive personal archives, as well as a guarantee from Hefner that she would have editorial control and creative freedom, something Hefner had never before granted to documentarians.

The film is not the first biography of Hefner, but it's undoubtedly the most complete and revealing to date.

"The primary research came from Hef's extensive scrapbooks that he has kept, dating all the way back," Berman said. "It was from these I found out how he was on Nixon's and Reagan's enemies list, or how he stuck his neck out for all kinds of social and legal reforms. For example, Hef sent his legal team to help a woman who received 15 years in prison for having an abortion in Florida. With his help, the woman was freed and the action helped changed the laws in that state."

The new film documents Hefner's many challenges to conservative norms.

Hefner established the Playboy Jazz Festival in 1959 and broke the color barrier by allowing black performers to play on stage with white ones.

When the franchised Miami and New Orleans Playboy Clubs' managements refused to allow African-Americans inside, Playboy Enterprises bought back the clubs at considerable expense so that the Southern states' segregation laws wouldn't apply.

From the 1960s, Hefner led the fight to overturn sexual conduct laws that were still on the books in many states. He was a proponent of free speech, defending many artists such as Lenny Bruce, who had been censored and arrested for speaking his mind.

Readers who "only read the articles" will attest that Playboy published many of the greatest writers of the latter half of the 20th century, including Ray Bradbury, Alex Haley, Joyce Carol Oates, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Anne Sexton and many others.

The iconic "Playboy Interview" set the standard for in-depth interviews of celebrities, politicians and activists. The likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were featured in the magazine, as well as the opposite views of white supremacist George Lincoln Rockwell.

Commenting on Playboy's publishing of the last piece ever written by Dr. King, Hefner said, "It was part of my dream, too."

Hefner and the Playboy Foundation were outspoken on birth control, a woman's right to choose and employing women.

"We've had female executives since the '50s," Hefner said of Playboy, "and of course my daughter Christie was CEO of the company for 26 years."

The first Playboy came more than a half century ago. Films at the time featured no nudity or rough language. Musicians were clean-cut. TV couples slept in twin beds.

With $600 of his own money and another $8,000 borrowed from family and friends, Hefner put together the first issue of Playboy while still working full time for, ironically, a magazine called Childrens Activities. The young entrepreneur's big coup was buying the rights to an unseen Marilyn Monroe nude portrait, which became the magazine's first centerfold a regular feature known as the "Playmate of the Month" in subsequent issues.

Hitting the stands in December 1953, the magazine was an unqualified success.

"After the first year or so of purchasing nude calendar photos, we started shooting our own centerfolds," Hefner said. "I looked for a 'girl next door' quality. The idea was that nice girls like sex, too. This, of course, was controversial in the '50s."

Thus began decades-long fights with the religious right, the FBI, feminists and conservative politicians.

Susan Brownmiller, author and feminist, confronted Hefner on "The Dick Cavett Show" in the early 1970s and famously said, "(Sexual equality is) when Hugh Hefner comes out here with a cottontail attached to his rear end." In the '80s, the National Federation of Decency would bestow a "Pornographer of the Month" award to corporations that advertised in Playboy. Author Judith Reisman, who received a grant from the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to link Playboy with sexual abuse, called Hefner a "sexual fascist."

"I understand it," he said, "that's what America was all about in those days. In fact, my own roots run back to William Bradford, who was on the Mayflower. I won't pretend that in the latter '60s, the women's movement turned against Playboy and I wasn't prepared for it. I always felt Playboy played a significant role in the women's movement by allowing women more sexual freedom and by changing sexual attitudes in this country."

Even today, the man remains controversial.

Rachel Durchslag, current Executive Director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitations (CAASE), said, "Hefner has done a lot of damage. He made it 'normal' to objectify women and tell young men that it was OK to be a playboy."

Chicago resident Candace Jordan disagrees. She appeared in Playboy in 1979 as Candace Collins, and dismisses accusations that Playboy exploits women.

"Quite the opposite is true," she said. "I was thrilled to be included and I felt very liberated by being able to choose this path for myself. My family was completely behind my decision. And by the way, there were no casting couches either. When critics would ask this question about being 'exploited,' I would always suggest to them that a woman's choice is at the heart of the feminist movement, and I executed my own choice which was perfect for me."

Today, Jordan is a popular Chicago high society columnist with her own blog, "Candid Candace."

Suzi Schott, originally from Addison, posed for the August 1984 issue and also said she never felt objectified.

"I was well paid and it was something I signed up to do," she said. "Playboy is about as pornographic as the sculptures and paintings you see in any fine art museum. As for what it does for the women's movement, I'm on the fence, but I would guess you'd have to also question things like cheerleading and beauty pageants. Don't they 'objectify' women, too?"

The film also illustrates another aspect of Hef's personality: his loyalty toward his friends. He is known to host dinners, movie nights, gaming nights and full-blown parties for friends to whom he has remained devoted for decades.

"That comes from family," Hefner said modestly. "I may have questioned the sexual values of my parents, but all my other values come from them. For example, I do believe that bigotry is taught to young people, and in my family that just didn't exist. My parents didn't always show it, but there was a lot of love. I simply continue to spread that love to the people who mean a lot to me my own family and friends."

Editor's note: Raymond Benson was a speaker at the 45th Anniversary Playboy Expo in 1999, and his fiction has been published in Playboy. He and his wife have been to the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles on numerous occasions.