Unlikely bedfellows

Hugh Hefner is bringing his silk pyjamas and lounging jacket to the Toronto International Film Festival, twin girlfriends in tow, to help launch Brigitte Berman's documentary about the Playboy empire founder's early social activism. Here, Etan Vlessing talks to the Hef about the evolution of this doc.
August 24, 2009

Hugh Hefner is bringing his silk pyjamas and lounging jacket to the Toronto International Film Festival, twin girlfriends in tow, to help launch Brigitte Berman’s documentary about the Playboy empire founder’s early social activism.

‘I’m coming up with my girlfriends for a special party or banquet. Someone’s arranging plane transportation,’ says Hefner.

Expect a more complex and paradoxical portrait of Hefner at TIFF as he helps launch Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, Berman’s portrait of the king of bunnydom battling the U.S. government, the religious right and feminist critics for civil rights and racial equality during the 1950s and 1960s.

‘Here’s an opportunity to have this other side of me, a more serious one, explored by someone as talented as Brigitte Berman, and having it done by a woman and a Canadian with the support of the Canadian government, it’s all very complimentary,’ says Hefner.

He first came in contact with Berman soon after she earned the 1985 best feature doc Oscar for her Artie Shaw biopic. Hefner, a jazz enthusiast, said he heard Berman had done an earlier documentary on the 1920s jazz sensation Bix Beiderbecke, ‘one of my real iconic heroes when I was a kid.’

The 1981 film hadn’t yet been released stateside, so Hefner paid for its music clearance and released Bix: Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet on his Jazz Video label.

Fast forward to 2006 and Berman found herself at Hefner’s 80th birthday party at the Playboy Mansion, attempting to convince the self-made hedonist that his early political and social activism needed a cinematic telling.

Hollywood producer Brian Grazer already had the rights to Hefner’s life story, but that project had yet to get off the ground.

‘Somewhere along the way, [Berman] decided that that there was another side to Hefner that no one had focused on and that this was an interesting story about [his] more serious side,’ Grazer recalls.

Berman got the green light, and access to Hefner’s revealing video vault at the Mansion.

‘For me, this film has it all – sex, glamour, politics, romance, tragedy, and conflicts – and many great surprises about a man people think they know, but don’t really,’ Berman says.

Hefner did screen the Canadian doc at the Mansion in July, and liked the result.

‘It brought tears to my eyes, in fact,’ he says.

So Hefner says he’ll do his part in Toronto to pull bunnies out of his hat to launch Berman’s doc, and possibly send the filmmaker back to Los Angeles for Oscar glory.

‘I don’t know if there’s anything I can do to persuade the Academy, but it (Toronto) is an international stage and I’m supposed to be supportive of the film and to get as much attention internationally,’ Hefner says.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.