Director : Paul Schrader
Screenplay : Michael Gerbosi (based on the book The Murder of Bob Crane by Robert Graysmith)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Greg Kinnear (Bob Crane), Willem Dafoe (John Carpenter), Maria Bello (Patricia Crane), Rita Wilson (Anne Crane), Ron Leibman (Lenny), Bruce Solomon (Feldman), Michael E. Rodgers (Richard Dawson), Kurt Fuller (Werner Klemperer / Col. Klink), Christopher Neiman (Robert Clary / LeBeau), Lyle Kanouse (John Banner / Sgt. Schultz)
Nathaniel Hawthorne could have been thinking about Bob Crane when he wrote in The Scarlet Letter, “No man for any considerable period can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” Since he was brutally murdered by having his head smashed in with a camera tripod in a Scottsdale, Arizona, apartment in 1978, Bob Crane has come to stand in pop culture as one of the great beacons of contradiction, an example of inner perversity masked by an external glow of happiness and likability. Crane’s paradoxical nature can be summed up in his two favorite catechisms: “Likability is 90% of the battle” and “A day without sex is a day wasted.”
From 1965 to 1971, Crane was known across the U.S. as Colonel Hogan, the sly, funny, heroic leader of a group of Allied prisoners in a Nazi prisoner of war camp in the improbable but successful sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. What the public didn’t know was that Crane’s crooked smile and charm masked a secret life characterized by sexual addiction, leading him down a path of depravity that he personally recorded using the nascent technology of home-video cameras. America’s TV sitcom-hero spent his private time seducing hundreds of women and videotaping the encounters, and the distance between those two personas represents in extreme terms the often enormous divide between how we want to see our celebrities (Hollywood and otherwise) and how they often are.
In Auto Focus, director Paul Schrader explores Crane’s dual persona, showing how they were essentially incompatible, even if Crane spent his entire life trying to find ways to justify their coexistence. The film opens in the early 1960s when Crane (Greg Kinnear) was one of the most successful radio talk show hosts in the country. Married to his high school sweetheart, Anne (Rita Wilson), the father of two children, and a regular church-goer, Crane seemed to be the epitome of button-down, squarish American conservatism (just look at the Technicolor Mr. Rogers sweaters that dominate his wardrobe).
Once he lands the lead role on Hogan’s Heroes, he meets a man named John “Carpy” Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), a home-video technician and salesman who both introduces Crane to the wonders of video recorders and also provides him with the outlet he’s always secretly desired to sleep with as many women as possible. Perhaps if Crane and Carpenter had never met, Crane’s sexual obsessions would have remained in the realm of fantasy; or, more likely, they were too strong and omnipresent to withhold forever. Because Bob Crane could, he did, and he spent the next 15 years indulging all of his sexual desires, in the process ruining two marriages (to both Anne and his second wife, Hogan’s Heroes co-star Patricia Olson) and his career.
Schrader, a great moralist filmmaker whose films have always explored both the inherent contradictions of men’s lives and the inevitability of personal destruction for those who are unsettled with themselves, couldn’t be a better match to this story. There has already been some controversy about the film’s lack of adherence to the facts of Bob Crane’s life, but that is missing the point. In Auto Focus, Bob Crane is a metaphor, a larger-than-life example of how, as Hawthorne noted more than 150 years ago, a man cannot live one life in public and one in private without eventually getting the two conflated.
Schrader, who wrote the scripts for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) and directed such films as Hard Core (1980) and Affliction (1998), has a special gift for conveying men with deeply troubled lives, who want to be one thing, but find themselves drawn into being something else. His films have a great sense of tragedy, and this comes through with particular strength in Auto Focus. Schrader and cinematographer Fred Murphy (The Mothman Prophecies) depict Crane’s decline visually, opening the film with bright, gaudy colors that slowly give way to a washed out palette and increasingly shaky hand-held camerawork that suggest Crane’s coming apart at the very seams.
A large part of the film’s success is due to Greg Kinnear’s strong performance in the lead. Although he doesn’t physically resemble Crane, Kinnear has the same crooked-smile charm and everyday affability that made Crane so popular with both the public at large and with the scores of women who wanted to sleep with him. Kinnear conveys Crane’s aw-shucks routine in a way that shows it to be both an inherent part of the man’s personality and one of the greatest publicity gimmicks of all time. In this way, he shows how Crane is at heart conflicted about who he is; deeply committed to being a “one-woman man,” he cannot see himself through his own delusions. As depicted here, Crane is less interested in deluding the public as he is in deluding himself. He was his own best audience.
Similarly, Willem Dafoe gives a searing performance as Carpenter, who comes across here as pathetic and deeply in need of reassurance. He provides the tools for Crane to indulge his sexual obsessions and takes part in them himself, but we always get the sense that he is a great void inside, never able to find anything that makes him happy. The film’s strong suggestion that Carpenter killed Crane supports the most popular theory of his death, but Dafoe’s performance gives it an added dimension, showing that, if Carpenter did indeed kill Crane, it was out of anguish, not anger, the pathetic killing the pathetic.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick