Hef's Hollywood

"LA STORIES" - TOTAL FILM, JULY 2010

Hugh Hefner staggers to his front door, blood seeping from his mouth and forehead. Grimacing with every step, he strains to push the door ajar but the bullets have done their deadly job: dizzy with pain he reels backwards, tumbling down the concrete steps onto the cold pavement below. A final breath; one arm raised feebly into the night air and then, stillness. The black Chicago night envelops his crumpled body.

And... cut!

The Return From The Dead, a 16 mm horror short from 1942 may not have been a cinematic milestone but, as its producer and star recalls, it was an early step on an extraordinary path.

“There’s no doubt about it,” insists Hefner who, at 85, paints his formative years in vivid detail. “Movies opened up my imagination. They led me to believe I could create a more expansive life. It was my love of Hollywood that directly influenced me in starting Playboy. It led to... this.”

He waves his arm and the gesture sweeps across the room, out the window, over the grounds, through the years. We are in the (surprisingly, book-light) library of the Playboy Mansion, that Xanadu of Hollywood legend where stars partied and clothes were optional.

Situated in Holmby Hills, part of the ‘Platinum Triangle’ (with Bel Air and Beverly Hills) that makes up America’s most expensive neighbourhood, a trip to the Mansion is as Wonka-esque as you might imagine.

 

On arrival, a voice from the ‘Talking Rock’ (a speaker-equipped boulder) interrogates potential guests. If credentials are confirmed, the iron gates will languidly open and visitors can proceed up a long winding driveway, past the ‘Playmates at Play’ road sign, around the wandering peacocks (there is a zoo and aviary here) and onwards through landscaped grounds that Peter O’Toole once described as “What God would have made, if he’d had the budget.”

Rolling hills, sloping terraced lawns and the largest redwood forest in Southern California frame a gothic-tudor abode ideal for a Kane or a Gatsby. Well, if they’d had particularly ’70s tastes...

As well as the aviary and zoo (the spider monkeys are friendly but freaky looking...), there is a koi pond, a bath house, sauna and solarium and a full underground gym. Plus the infamous pool and grotto with its four hot tubs, two waterfalls and, on occasion, bevy of playmates splashing around. Or, as the Daily Mail would have it: “An underground cave that frequently plays host to notorious sex parties and orgies.”

Sex colours everyone’s opinion of Hefner. (“I always say my life is like a Rorschach test. What people see says as much about them as it does me...”)

To his detractors, he’s a porn peddler and a major contributor to the ongoing objectification of women. To his defenders, he’s a pioneer who took on the hypocrisy – sexual and otherwise – of the times, and in the process made sex as healthy, or at least as acceptable, an all-American pursuit as big cars and better living.

Whichever side of the fence you sit on, it’s hard to dispute that, from its nude-Marilyn fuelled launch in 1953, to its ’70s commercial prime, when only Mickey’s ears were a more familiar silhouette than the bunny’s, Playboy was a cultural phenomenon, Hefner a living embodiment of the magazine’s philosophy and the Mansion its spiritual home.

Originally based in Chicago (after flitting between the two cities, Hef moved to Los Angeles permanently in 1974), Playboy’s unique cocktail of left-leaning politics and right-on partying has always attracted Hollywood: from Groucho Marx to Shia LaBeouf (via Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, Paul Newman, Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda, Leonardo DiCaprio, Drew Barrymore, Colin Farrell etc.), stars of each decade have found their way to the Mansion and to Hefner, the ‘Prophet of Pop Hedonism’ as TIME once called him.

Today, as usual, the prophet is in his pyjamas. Black silk, custom made, with a red smoking jacket and velvet loafers. He greets us with a warm handshake, seems genuinely pleased to chat (“I like your magazine.”) and, despite a touch of arthritis, lumbers purposefully to the library, where we sit on his left (he’s a little deaf in his right ear) in front of a large backgammon board.

 

Behind us is a breast-baring ceramic bust of Barbi Benton, a one-time ‘serious’ girlfriend and former Playboy model. Having regaled us with tales of his first movie (“I remember it vividly. It’s last week I have a problem with...”), he slips comfortably into interview mode like a seasoned chat show guest. Seemingly fully recovered from a 1985 stroke, he is sharp and engaging, with the energy levels of someone half his age. (He’s already tweeted to his half a million followers that we are meeting today.)

He credits his passion for cinema down to childhood visits to Chicago’s Montclare Theatre: “In that darkened theatre,” he waxes romantically, “I escaped into wonderful dreams of adventure and romance. All things seemed possible to me.”

Initially, it was Universal horror movies that sparked his imagination: “I grew up in the ’30s and ’40s. Frankenstein, The Bride Of Frankenstein... loved them. King Kong was my favourite. I didn’t exactly come from a home full of hugs and kisses. It was a typical conservative, puritan home and I was quite a solitary child, a bit of a dreamer. Movies showed me another world and sparked a desire in me.”

He began a horror fan club – The Shudder Club with its own secret handshake, code, merit badges and specially designed insignia – a skull with a bloody dagger. And Shudder magazine, with stories and comics he created himself, which he sold to school friends.

“Creating my own world in a comic was a way of gaining recognition and acceptance from my peers,” he says. “Though I didn’t recognise it at the time, I did exactly the same thing when I created Playboy. One grew directly out of the other.”

Having begged, borrowed and scraped together the bare minimum required to start the magazine, Playboy’s rapid success meant Hefner, a one-time movie usher, was soon meeting the stars he’d watched on screen.

“Was I starstruck? Of course! The very people I idolised were now hanging out with me. As the magazine grew in stature, I found myself rubbing shoulders with Sinatra, Tony Curtis... all of them wanted to hang out. Many of them became good friends.”

Flushed with success, Hefner tried to launch his own movie magazine, Show Business Illustrated, in 1961 but lightning wasn’t to strike twice.

“I didn’t realise how phenomenal Playboy’s rise was,” he admits now. “Because it had made a profit from the start, I didn’t expect to have to keep pouring money into SBI. Perhaps it was ahead of its time – it was probably not dissimilar to Entertainment Weekly now. But we were expanding so fast with Playboy there just weren’t enough hours in the day.”

While SBI was sold on and eventually closed, Playboy remained as bullet-proof as Bond (“I know that Fleming was influenced by Playboy,” says Hef. “What are Bond girls but bunnies, really?”). The launch of the Playboy Clubs further expanded Hefner’s growing empire.

In 1966, under the supervision of Victor Lownes, one of Hefner’s closest confidants, a Playboy Club opened in London for the first time, quickly becoming a hangout for The Beatles, George Best, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Roman Polanski and the rest of the capital’s swinging ’60s A-list.

Through the London Club, Hefner and Playboy made the step into film production, financing And Now For Something Completely Different, which was intended as a way of breaking Monty Python in America.

“There was definitely a scene in London at that time,” says Hefner. “And the Playboy Club was at the heart of it. That was also how I got to know Polanski.”

After Polanski’s pregnant wife Sharon Tate was murdered by members of the Charles Manson cult in California, the Polish-French director sunk into depression. When he decided to make his next project a violently vivid adaptation of Macbeth, no studio would finance it. Lownes persuaded Hefner to stump up the cash.

 

“No one films Shakespeare to make money,” says Hefner with a wry smile (the film went massively over budget). “We didn’t do it for that. But I was happy to support him.”

The film never drew a mass audience though it was voted the best picture of the year by the Board of Review of Motion Pictures. There was one scene that didn’t make the final cut: the witches boil up their poisonous prophetic brew and, after chanting “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble,” turn to camera and sing “Happy Birthday, Hef!”.

“He surprised me with that on my 45th birthday,” recalls Hefner. “On one of our regular movie nights.”

Movie nights remain a big thing at the Mansion. At least three times a week, 50 or so guests are invited to attend. Fridays and Saturdays are classic films. Sundays are for new releases. Hefner often introduces the films, with notes he prepares beforehand. He likes some modern fare, but admits his heart is in the classics – his current top three all feature Bogart: Casablanca, To Have And Have Not and The Maltese Falcon.

“If you look at the old studio system, “ he says. “And the amount of great movies made that stand the test of time and you look at the ratio of good movies made today, I think it’s inarguable that the old system worked better.”

A movie of his own life is a certainty at some point. Until recently, Brian Grazer was rumoured to be producing a Diablo Cody-scripted biopic starring Robert Downey Jr.

“Robert did contact me,” says Hefner. “It was after Iron Man. Brian was looking at it and I met with Diablo but it’s reverted back to us. That’s something we’ll be looking at.”

Up sooner will be Hugh Hefner: Playboy Activist And Rebel, a documentary by Oscar winner Brigitte Berman that explores the more compelling side of Hefner: his civil rights work and support of liberal causes. From his TV show Playboy’s Penthouse, which featured Black and white party guests mingling, to his buying back of Playboy Club franchises when the owners had introduced segregation (which he reversed), Hefner has always made good on the boast that Playboy was about more than sex.

“Playboy was never a sex magazine, as far as I was concerned,” says Hefner, “Sex was simply part of the total package. Our philosophy was, is, very connected to the American Dream, to personal freedom, political freedom, economic freedom. With the emphasis on the personal.”

Hefner established the Playboy Foundation, to fund non-profit groups involved in fighting censorship and donated his private jet (‘The Big Bunny’), to fly Vietnamese orphans to their new US homes. He fought for condom distribution, the legalisation of marijuana and against cases of individuals prosecuted on the basis of archaic laws – all of which is covered in Berman’s film.

“It’s nice,” says Hefner, with obvious pride, “That someone has documented the other part of my life. I’m not saying it’s the full story but it is the lesser-told one. I know my life remains controversial to some. But I tried to make a difference, and I think I’ve managed to do that.”

Despite difficult times, Playboy has reinvented itself. The clubs are back (one opens in London this summer). Brand extensions, such as clothing, are internationally popular. And the magazine is still selling in significant, albeit diminishing, quantities.

 

Perhaps most surprising is the success of Girls Of The Playboy Mansion, which has grown into one of the most popular reality TV shows in the world and repositioned Hefner as some kind of loveable uncle. “Women really love it,” grins Hefner. “It’s brought Playboy to a new audience.”

The next foray on to the small screen will be on network television: NBC has commissioned a pilot for a new drama set in Chicago in the ’60s called The Playboy Club (“Mad Men with bunnies,” says Hef).

Meanwhile, Hef himself is in the news again because of his forthcoming wedding to 24-year-old Crystal Harris. This will be his third, and one assumes, final marriage. “I’m devoted to her,” he says simply. “This is as happy a time in my life as I’ve ever had. I feel very fortunate.”

This afternoon, a potential judge for the ceremony is coming to meet Hef, but before we go he insists we check out his movie memorabilia: “You’ll love it. Come see...”

We make our way up the staircase and into his bedroom (scene of who only knows what over the years…), but filling the shelves, and most of the floor that the big circular bed doesn’t take up, is enough movie bric-a-brac to fill an antique store.

 

There’s an original clapperboard from Macbeth, props from the old horror films, toys, statues, books, pictures and more. With every item Hef picks up, he offers an anecdote or fond memory.

“I remember Paul Newman saying...”

 

“Do you remember the scene when...”

 

He carries on picking up trinkets as the sun streams through the windows and, for a moment, despite the surroundings, controversies, myths and paradoxes, there’s a glimpse of the teenage Hef. The boy who always preferred movies to the real world.

© 2020 by Aubrey Day.