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updated: 10/28/2010 5:17 PM

'Hefner' an eye-opening documentary

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  • The documentary "Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel" tracks the colorful, controversial life of the man who created Playboy  and the Playboy bunny.

      The documentary "Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel" tracks the colorful, controversial life of the man who created Playboy and the Playboy bunny.

  • Video: "Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel" trailer

 

"How can he be working for the devil and God at the same time?" asks Jenny McCarthy, former Playboy Playmate of the Year and television personality.

She's referring, oddly enough, to Hugh M. Hefner, the subject of the fascinating new documentary, "Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel."

For more than 50 years, Hefner and the iconic men's magazine he founded in 1953 have been bombarded by controversy and criticism making Hef a worthy subject for a documentary. The film, written and directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Brigitte Berman, explores the humanitarian side of the man whom critics have labeled a "pornographer."

"Humanitarian?" you ask.

Would it surprise you to know that in 1971, ACLU of Southern California named Hefner "Man of the Year"? In 1974, Hefner was honored for his "profound influence on legislative and judicial thought" by the San Francisco Criminal Bar Association? And in 1977, he received a Special Humanitarian Award from the Beverly Hills-Hollywood Chapter of the NAACP?

The man best known for his pajama-clad playboy lifestyle and his magazine's nude centerfolds also utilized his private jet, the "Big Bunny," to transport a number of Vietnamese orphans around the country to deliver them to new homes. He fought for racial equality in entertainment venues. And he broke the blacklist by publishing writers who were victims of the McCarthy era.

The documentary tells those stories and more, but Berman doesn't sugarcoat the proceedings. Also appearing in the film are several of Hefner's long-standing opponents, such as feminist author Susan Brownmiller, who calls Hefner "dangerous," and Christian activist and singer Pat Boone.

Using archival footage and material pulled from Hefner's vast private collection, much of which has never been seen before publicly, Berman tells both sides of Hef's battles with the religious right, state and local governments, the FBI and even foes as powerful as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. It's eye-opening stuff.

Most importantly, the picture is entertaining. It moves along at a brisk pace as one aspect of Hefner's life is revealed after another. A number of celebrities. authors and politicians chime in with opinions. If you're looking for titillation, however, you won't find it here. There is plenty of nudity, in the form of photographs taken from the magazine, but there is nothing salacious or scandalous.

The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.

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