Stars: Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Rita Wilson, Maria Bello, Ron Leibman, Bruce Solomon
Director: Paul Schrader
Screenwriter: Michael Gerbosi; based on the book The Murder of Bob Crane by Robert Graysmith
Based on the biographical book The Murder of Bob Crane, Auto Focus details the life and death of actor Bob Crane from the time he was a popular Los Angeles disc jockey, through the years of his TV stardom in the hit comedy Hogan’s Heroes (1965-71) set in a WWII POW camp until the time he was discovered bludgeoned in a motel room. It’s a look at how one man systematically destroyed his own career and life, not by the usual suspects of drugs and alcohol, but from doing something particularly seamy and insidious.
When we first meet Crane (Greg Kinnear), it’s while he’s working as a D.J. and married to Anne (Rita Wilson), enjoying a fairly staid and simple life with their two children. He has a little secret, though. He likes to look at dirty magazines which he stashes in the garage and tries to cover up by referring to them as photography interests. It’s the first clue that Crane’s personality has a major defect.
After winning the lead on Hogan’s Heroes, Crane meets sleazy television and sound technician John Carpenter (well played by Willem Dafoe) who introduces him to the marvels of a videotape recorder, which was relatively unknown at the time. It’s as if Carpenter is the devil himself, leading Crane down a corrupting path which Crane is all too willing to traveling. In no time, Crane and Carpenter are hitting the strip joints and procuring women for intimate parties at Carpenter’s house. Egging each other on, they become obsessed with capturing their sexual exploits on tape, so much so that Crane at one point even suggests they make a full-fledged porno film.
Strippers, hookers, fans, strangers – it doesn’t matter. They’re all prey. Crane’s growing sexual addiction results in the demise of two marriages. His second one was to Hogans Heroes co-star Patricia Olson (Maria Bello). At the same time he’s in total denial that there’s anything wrong with him. He even shows around his private photo album, foolishly attracting attention to his seamy lifestyle.
When Hogan’s Heroes gets canceled after a six-year run, Crane’s career nosedives. And more people get wind of his sexual proclivities. The only work he can get is dinner theater. In a last ditch effort to get his career back on track, Crane tries to sever the relationship with Carpenter who over the years has developed an unhealthy co-dependence upon Crane, using Crane’s celebrity as an easy ploy to get women. In 1978, Bob Crane was found dead in a Scottsdale, Arizona motel. Carpenter, the one and only suspect, was tried and acquitted for lack of evidence. He died in 1998.
Lotta says: Kinnear has taken a giant career step with his choice to play Bob Crane. There is not an ounce of sympathy for his character and by the jaunty voiceover he gives throughout, none seems to be expected. He does an excellent job with difficult subject matter which I hope was worth it for his sake. Dafoe delivers humor and sleaze in one fell swoop. Director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver and Affliction) and cinematograper Fred Murphy juggle film stocks from color to near black and white and jiggle cameras to produce a semi documentary look to good effect.
My guess is that the only people who’ll want to see the film, though, are those who have fond memories of Bob Crane and Hogan’s Heroes but who had no clue as to Crane’s real and very untoward lifestyle. Except for the personality eyeopener about Crane and some historical bits with the film and recording equipment that Carpenter introduces, I found it rather boring. The subject matter is distasteful to say the least.
Also featured: Ron Leibman as Crane’s agent Lenny; Bruce Solomon as Feldman–Hogan’s Producer. Of the Hogan’s Heroes clan, Michael Rodgers plays actor Richard Dawson; Kurt Fuller plays Werner Klemperer/Klink and Christopher Neiman plays Robert Clary/LeBeau. It’s rated R for strong sexuality, nudity, language, some drug use and violence.