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The Doc Days of Summer: “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel”

The Doc Days of Summer: “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel” (photo)

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Before I could ask Brigitte Berman about the mixed reception that her new documentary about Playboy founder Hugh Hefner has received, she wanted to make one thing clear: “You cannot do a valentine piece. You must not. If you do, you discredit everything.”

For some, Hefner will never receive much credit, but that is exactly what Berman attempts to rectify in “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel,” a leisurely biography that’s very much like his glossy magazine: an easy sell because of the busty bombshells found within its pages, but just as seductive for its willingness to inject itself into the politics and culture of the era.

Alongside the centerfolds, Berman offers up a different definition of T & A in regards to Hefner, chronicling his tenacity and ambition as an innovator of cross-platform media, a savvy tastemaker, and a champion of the First Amendment who used his many outlets in print and on television (“Playboy’s Penthouse”) to break down racial and sexual taboos.

Yet as critics have attacked the film for being too deferential, Berman finds herself in a situation not unlike the one her subject has endured for nearly 60 years. “It’s very interesting what’s happening because people either like or really dislike Hefner and now when they are looking at the film, the dislike of Hefner is totally translated on the film,” said Berman. “They only see and hear what they want to see and hear.”

07312010_HughHefnerPlayboy2.jpgBerman has had quite some time to observe Hefner personally, ever since the noted jazz devotee requested to see her 1981 documentary on the ’20s musician (and one of his personal favorites) Bix Beiderbecke at the Playboy Mansion. The two forged a quick bond over the music and their personal friendship would become professional when Hefner ultimately released “BIX: ain’t none of them play like him yet” on his Playboy Jazz Video label. He helped Berman out of the 13 years of legal wrangling over her Oscar-winning 1985 doc on Artie Shaw (who Hefner deadpanned at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, “was a wonderful musician, but…,” trailing off to laughs from the crowd).

Still, it wouldn’t be until 2006 when Berman attended Hefner’s 80th birthday party that she realized she should make a film about him, since the decadent gala full of nude women covered in body paint, celebrity guests and a breathy Paris Hilton rendition of “Happy Birthday” was, in her words, “just the Playboy that most people knew.” After getting a one-page fax giving her carte blanche to Hefner’s time and his voluminous archives, Berman set off on a three-and-a-half year journey, collecting interviews with no less an eclectic crowd than Pat Boone, George Lucas, feminist Susan Brownmiller, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Mike Wallace and others to talk about Hefner’s legacy for better or worse. (Berman has made a point of mentioning Gloria Steinem declined repeated invitations to be interviewed.)

07312010_HughHefnerPlayboy1.jpg“I was not a friend of Hugh Hefner who was going to do a film about a friend,” said Berman. “I became somebody else and I used everything I knew as a filmmaker. This was a true challenge because there was so much material, over 2000 scrapbooks to go through and read and that’s to discover more and more interesting things about Hugh Hefner and the deeper and the more I saw, the deeper and more real my film became.”

It also became very long. Berman’s initial cut for “Playboy, Activist and Rebel” was seven-and-a-half hours, a version that gave the filmmaker the enviable problem of cropping lengthy, detailed anecdotes by the likes of Dick Gregory and Gene Simmons into manageable segments, but unfortunately meant some interviews with Hefner’s children and Playmate Jo Collins, who went on a Vietnam humanitarian tour on behalf of Playboy, would have to hit the cutting room floor.

With the help of six close advisers, Berman eventually trimmed it down to a more traditional two-hour version that’s still exhaustive in its scope, tracing Hefner from his early days idling time as an amateur cartoonist while working as a copy editor for Esquire to his later life in pajamas in the Holmby Hills.

07312010_HughHefnerPlayboy3.jpgAnd the irony of making a serious film that bridges the gap between the boyish crusader of the ’60s and ’70s with the captain’s hat-wearing octogenarian better known these days for the bevy of blondes on his arm on “The Girls Next Door” wasn’t lost on Berman.

“When you look at Playboy as a magazine, you see the ‘Girls Next Door’ part of it reflected, you see my side reflected in the magazine,” said Berman. “It’s all there in Mr. Hefner and it’s what makes him an incredibly complex and interesting person. You see the pictures of all the girls in my film. But at the same time, there is that side of the person who dared to stick his neck out in ways that few people do in America.”

“Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel” is now open in New York, Los Angeles and Wasthington D.C. before expanding into limited release on August 6th.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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