In Brigitte Berman's latest docu-biopic, 'Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel,' we see a side of Hefner that is often drowned out by tabloids, celeb gossip mags, and the relentless cycle of tawdry talk. This is a man who fought for civil rights in the '60s, brought many black musicians into the limelight, sought more lenient marijuana laws, and worked to change the often-uptight sexual mores of mainstream America, back in a time when these things simply weren't talked about.
Moviefone sat down to talk with the cultural icon about the film, his enduring image, and the continuing racial and sexual divides in American society. Hugh Hefner is a serious man. Really. Most of us imagine him as this swinging playboy who jumps from woman to woman, living lavishly off the proceeds from his Playboy empire, even at the age of 84. In reality, while Hefner undoubtedly knows how to live large, he is also actively engaged in the world around him, particularly in politics, activism and the glossy sphere of Hollywood. (Who do you think saved the Hollywood sign -- twice?).
In Brigitte Berman's latest docu-biopic, 'Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel,' we see a side of Hefner that is often drowned out by tabloids, celeb gossip mags and the relentless cycle of tawdry talk. This is a man who fought for civil rights in the '60s, brought many African-American musicians into the limelight, sought more lenient marijuana laws and worked to change the often-uptight sexual mores of mainstream America, back in a time when these things simply weren't talked about.
Moviefone sat down to talk with the cultural icon about the film, his enduring image, and the continuing racial and sexual divides in American society.
After screening the film, I have to say your accomplishments are amazing, almost as if you've lived several different lives. Does it ever feel that way for you?
[Laughs] I've lived long enough, so... I wouldn't say I've lived several lives. But maybe I have! In the middle of it all, I disappeared into a marriage for 10 years, so there's that life.
Most people of my generation (and younger) have virtually no idea about your past. Are you hoping that this film will change that and open people's eyes to the real Hugh Hefner?
Well, it certainly seems to be turning out that way. I had not anticipated this at all, quite frankly, when Brigitte approached me with the idea. I met her originally when she did the Academy Award-winning documentary on Artie Shaw, and I'm a big fan of his. It turned out she also did a documentary on Bix Beiderbecke, and I'm a gigantic fan of that iconic coronet player.
So we became friends, and when she suggested doing this film, it seemed like a nice idea. I didn't realize that it would receive such a remarkable response. It's very satisfying, and I truly hope that, yes, it opens people's eyes.
How did you feel when you first saw the film?
I was impressed. I saw a much longer version originally; I think it was just under three hours. But I thought it was good at any length.
I spoke with Ms. Berman this morning, and she said the original was actually seven hours!
You have to admit, you're hard to encapsulate.
Well, that. And also -- others have used this expression -- for a good filmmaker, editing down is like killing your children. To get a better final version, you have to give up some very good things.
At any point were you trepidatious about the film being made?
No, I trusted her. [Laughs] Although she did have those naysayers in there. I said, "What are those people doing in there?" [Laughs]
I guess you have to show both sides, and there weren't really that many naysayers in the film. You eventually got Mike Wallace over on your side, too!
That is really one of the delicious touches in the film. It's very candid about his initial reaction to me and how he came around. Eventually -- and I don't think this is anywhere in the film -- he did an interview for Playboy and did some work for us. As he pointed out, he trusted me. I'm an honest man.
Was there a scene or particular footage in the film that touched you the most?
There are many moments in the film that actually moved me dramatically, emotionally -- particularly any scenes that had to do with war. There's a scene where Country Joe and the Fish are singing their anti-Vietnam War song, and juxtaposed with the images of the boys overseas, I found it very touching. It creates a tremendous sense of sadness and desperation in me when I think about how we continue to do these things over and over and over again.
Does it ever bother you on any level that America still experiences this racial divide and sexual apprehension, two things you fought so vehemently against?
Of course it bothers me. Definitely. I think you're accurate -- those things are still there to some degree. It's still there in terms of mixed attitudes towards race and mixed attitudes towards sex. People are people, and they need to be taught. Good ideas or bad ideas, you get them when you're very young. You get them from parents. You have to be taught. The truth of the matter is, it's not just an American problem. Look around the world! We have religions worldwide that are supposed to bring us together, but instead they separate us.
Also, there's all that stuff going on with the Tea Party and the NAACP.
It's a curious phenomenon. I made a comment that I was happy to have lived long enough to see a black man in the White House; but at the same time, Obama's presence in the White House has brought to the surface very hurtful, negative values in the country.
Can you talk at all about the potential privatization of Playboy?
There's a great deal to be said about it. I think it's significantly undervalued. I'm concerned about the future legacy of the brand and of the magazine. What I want to try and do is, if possible, take the company to a place where everybody benefits. Do something fair for the minority stockholders and at the same time establish a more certain and brighter future for the brand.
You would never sell Playboy, right? Especially after seeing this movie, you've made that very clear.
Never sell it, no. I am not selling. It is my firstborn.
You've loved so many women in your life. Do you ever feel sadness when you part or separate from them?
Oh, sure! I'm a romantic. I'm grateful for the time spent with people that I love, that I shared part of my life with. I've said it before: The best solution to a lost love is a new love.
Do you follow your "girls" after you separate from them? Like Kendra having her baby, all that stuff?
Oh yes, absolutely. I think that one of the things that's unique about me is that I tend to remain close to most of my romantic loves. We remain good friends. I still regularly see, on holidays, the girl I had a crush on in high school.
I bet she regrets not getting together with you now.
[Laughs] Oh, I don't know about that. She's a very dear lady.
Who in pop culture today most interests you?
I would have to say Obama.
I thought you were going to say Lady Gaga.
[Laughs] The latter-day Madonna.
Knowing how much of a workaholic you are, has it been tough to slow down?
I still remain very active in the business and with the magazine; but at the same time, I'm definitely pacing myself. I'm not as driven as I was in the earlier years -- and I think that's a good thing. Those around me will say I'm more mellow than I was. Mary [Hefner's secretary] is nodding her head. Mary O'Connor knows all. She knows.
What's up next for you?
I'm consumed with the release of the movie for now. Mary's pointing out that there's a pilot coming up for the spinoff of 'Girls Next Door,' called 'Bunny House,' which will be airing here in the next few weeks. Also, we're hoping to do a Brian Grazer feature film on my life.
Who's going to play Hefner?
Robert Downey, Jr. has expressed interest, and I think he would be a very good choice.
Check out Hugh -- as himself -- in 'Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel.' The movie opens in theaters in Toronto on Friday, August 5, Montreal August 13, and Vancouver August 20. It opens in New York City on July 30.