Raymond Benson with Hefner at the Playboy Mansion.
true American innovator and icon has left us.
I would never claim to be one of this brilliant man’s inner circle of close longtime
friends or family, I was privileged to know him for nearly three decades. I was
a guest at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles on numerous occasions, many times
along with my wife and even my son, who first visited when he was eight years
old! Hef was always a generous host—kind, warm-hearted, and full of
conversation. He also had integrity. His championing of civil rights and First
Amendment freedoms is legendary. He gave us the permission to embrace the
sexual revolution—and, believe it or not, he was a strong advocate of women’s
rights. The women who truly knew him loved
first “met” through correspondence after the publication of my 1980s book, The James Bond Bedside Companion. I had
been a Playboy reader and subscriber
since I was old enough to be one (and was sneaking it into the house before
that!), so I knew the magazine well, its philosophy, and its impact on popular
culture. I also was well aware that Hef was a James Bond fan. Playboy was the first American
periodical to publish fiction by Ian Fleming. Beginning with the March 1960
issue, Playboy published several of
Fleming’s short stories and excerpts from his novels during that decade. The
magazine also featured pictorials from the films that lasted into the 80s.
sent Hef a copy of the Bedside Companion and
I was surprised and pleased that he wrote me back, thanking me for the book and
relating a little of how he first screened Dr.
No at the Chicago Playboy Mansion in 1962, months before its official ’63 release
in the U.S. Additional occasional correspondence between us ensued over the
next few years, and then, in 1994, I was invited to visit Playboy Mansion West
on “movie night” while I was attending a James Bond convention being held in
Los Angeles. A year later, I landed the gig to become the first American author
to pen official 007 novels. I suggested to the Ian Fleming people that we
approach Hef to do an exclusive short story for the magazine and re-establish
the Playboy/Bond connection. The
result was the publication of my Bond fiction in six issues of Playboy between 1997 and 2000.
Raymond took this snap from the sidelines in 1999 as the 45th Anniversary photo is taken of Hef and hundreds of Playmates. (Photo copyright by Raymond Benson. All rights reserved.)
of the more memorable weekends I spent in Hef’s company was during the “Playboy
Expo,” held in L.A. in 1999 for the 45th Anniversary of the
magazine. I was invited to be a guest speaker at the expo, which ran for two
days and featured the appearances of around 300 Playmates, past and present. I
was on the sidelines when the iconic photograph was taken at the Mansion of Hef
and all the women present who had graced the centerfold since the 1950s. That
was surely a “pinch me” moment.
normally visited the Mansion on “movie nights.” These were held on Sundays,
when up to fifty guests were invited for a buffet dinner and the screening of a
current film. When no other events were happening, Hef had “classic” movie
nights of old movies on Fridays and/or Saturdays. Hef was a serious movie buff!
fact, Hef made many contributions to the world of cinema. He was one of the
movers and shakers (and financiers) for the restoration of the famous “Hollywood”
sign that had come into disrepair by the 70s. Playboy Enterprises had a working
film production company during that decade and made a few memorable pictures.
For example, the first Monty Python film, And
Now for Something Completely Different (1971), was a Playboy production.
Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (also 1971)
was executive produced by Hefner.
work in television was also pioneering. His Playboy’s
Penthouse, that aired for two seasons in 1959-1961, was the first variety
show to break the “color barrier” by ensuring black performers mingled with
impact that Hef’s magazine had on the world cannot be capsulized in this short
tribute. I will leave that task to others. Just know that a young Hugh Hefner
created Playboy on his kitchen table
in a modest Chicago apartment with very little money. Now the rabbit logo is
one of the most widely recognized symbols around the world. Hef is a perfect
example of someone who pursued the American Dream and achieved it.
in Peace, Hef, and thank you.
Cinema Retro extends its deepest
condolences to Hugh Hefner’s family—Crystal, Cooper, Marston, Christie, and
(For Raymond Benson's exclusive interview with Hugh Hefner about the films he produced, see Cinema Retro issue #5)
Allen came off an incredible run of five superior films released between 1983
and 1987 (Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, The
Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her
Sisters, and Radio Days) and then
delivered one of his occasional “serious” pictures (without his presence as an
actor) in late ’87 that was so dire that it only grossed approximately $500,000
in its initial run.
a six-character “play” that takes many cues from the works of Anton Chekhov, September is set in a Vermont country
house where depressed Lane (Mia Farrow) is recovering from a suicide attempt.
Her best friend Stephanie (Dianne Wiest) is there for moral support. Lane is in
love with tenant/writer Peter (Sam Waterston), and neighbor/teacher Howard
(Denholm Elliott) is in love with Lane. She doesn’t share Howard’s affections,
but Peter, however, is in love with Stephanie. Coming to visit into this
quartet of woe is Lane’s extroverted mother, a former actress named Diane
(Elaine Stritch) and her second husband Lloyd (Jack Warden). Diane and Lane
have a complicated relationship. When Lane was young, she found her mother
being abused by a man and she killed him (shades of the infamous real-life case
involving Lana Turner, her daughter, and a mobster).
sound like one of Woody Allen’s laugh-fests, does it?
September was a problem project
for the writer/director from the beginning. He had originally cast Christopher
Walken as Peter, started shooting, and then decided that wasn’t working. He
recast the role with Sam Shepard. Maureen O’Sullivan was playing Diane, and
Charles Durning had the part of Howard. Allen shot the entire movie and edited
it. He was unhappy with it for some reason, so he decided to recast the
roles of Peter, Diane, and Howard, and remake
the entire movie. I’m sure the studio, Orion Pictures, loved that
prospect—but at that time Allen’s stock was uncommonly high and he had the
clout to do it.
acting is good enough, I suppose. Elaine Stritch, in particular, shines in the
showy role of the crazy show biz mom. The problem is that these are people we
can’t really care about. The love and angst on display quickly becomes
no one has ever seen the first version of September
that Allen shot, I can’t imagine that the picture we saw in the cinema in
December ’87 was any better. For the record, I will state that Woody Allen,
with nearly fifty titles under his belt, is one our national treasures as a
filmmaker…but September ranks as one
of the worst five movies he ever made. Luckily, he followed the picture with
one of his best “serious” titles—Another
Woman (also available from Twilight Time).
looks gorgeous, though! The cinematography
by the late, great Carlo Di Palma emphasizes the autumn colors of Vermont with
a pastel palette that is very pleasing to the eye. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray
1080p High Definition transfer is admirable, accompanied by a fine 1.0 DTS-HD
Master Audio. The only supplements, however, are an isolated music and effects
track (the music consists of Allen’s typical Great American Songbook jazz
standards), and the theatrical trailer.
September—a nice product of
only 3,000 (limited edition) units—will appeal to Woody Allen completists.
Allen’s very first directorial effort (not counting What’s Up, Tiger Lily? from 1966, which was, in actuality, a
Japanese spy movie that Allen rewrote, dubbed, and re-edited into a comedy) was
the low budget, no frills Take the Money
and Run, released in the summer of 1969 to an unsuspecting audience. While
Allen was already somewhat familiar to the public via his numerous television
talk show and stand-up appearances, as well as his small roles in three late-60s
motion pictures, no one was quite prepared for the zany, nebbish onscreen
persona that Allen debuted in Take the
Money. It was a cinematic guise he would keep to the present day.
intellectual Jewish nerd that Allen presented (here his character’s name is
Virgil Starkwell) quickly became the guy whom we all thought Woody Allen really
is. Some folks might have said, “Oh, he’s just playing himself.” Perhaps
certain characteristics of the real Woody Allen may have been a part of Virgil
Starkwell, or Fielding Mellish, or even Alvy Singer, but like Groucho Marx and his onscreen persona, we now know that Woody
Allen is not that guy. In truth, he tends to be surprisingly shy, quiet, and
introverted. This revelation makes the performances in his movies that much
Take the Money and
also a milestone because of its “mockumentary” format, a comedy sub-genre that
had been rarely explored up to that point. Something like A Hard Day’s Night might be called a mockumentary, but it wasn’t
until Allen’s landmark unveiling of his first feature that we saw the comedic
possibilities of presenting a story as if it were real news—complete with
documentary-style narration (provided in this case by veteran Jackson Beck).
movie is the tale of a common serial thief, and how his love life and eventual
marriage (to Louise, played by Janet Margolin) affects his “career.” The
hilarious biographical narrative includes wacky robberies, failed attempts to
go straight, and numerous stints in the pen. One cannot easily forget the
classic bank holdup scene in which Allen passes a note to the teller, who can’t
read the handwriting. Before long, the entire staff of the bank is attempting
to decipher whether Starkwell wrote “gub” or “gun.” “Is this a holdup?” one guy
for roughly $1.5 million, the picture looks, well, cheap, and it has that 1960s
shot-on-newsreel-cameras feel, which of course is entirely appropriate. The
direction is competent; Allen has long acknowledged the contribution of editor
Ralph Rosenblum to his early comedies. It’s not unfair to say that Rosenblum
may have taught Allen essential lessons in directing. That said, it’s also no
small feat to act in, direct, and co-write (with Mickey Rose) a movie. Despite
the low rent vibe of the picture, the jokes really do come every few seconds,
and this is worth the price of admission. It is a very funny movie.
Kino Lorber Blu-ray transfer looks fine, although the video quality of the
original picture wasn’t particularly great to begin with. Unfortunately, like
with most Allen Blu-ray releases, there are no supplements other than trailers
for other Kino Lorber releases.
Take the Money and Run is a
worthwhile examination of a genius artist’s baby steps. There’s no question
that Allen’s career began with an impressive laugh riot—and things would only