This week saw the release of Hollywoodland, a movie centred around the mysterious death of actor George Reeves. It was nearly four years ago that another movie centred around another mysterious death of an actor was released. That movie was Auto Focus. The actor was Bob Crane, best known as Colonel Hogan of Hogan's Heroes. It was on June 29, 1978 that Crane was bludgeoned to death while sleeping in his Scottsdale, Arizona apartment. With Crane's death, the messy details of his private life became public. It turned out that for literally years Crane had been engaged in videotaping sex acts with women he had picked up, aided and abetted by John Henry Carpenter (not to be confused with John Carpenter, the director). Crane and Carpenter had first met while Hogan's Heroes was still in production, while Carpenter was working for Sony (a result of which made Carpenter an expert in what was then the latest in technology--videotape). The Scottsdale police viewed Carpenter as their number one suspect in Crane's murder. It has been put forth that Crane wished to restart his career (which had been floundering for some time) and decided to cease his more unsavoury activities. Naturally, this would have meant breaking off his relationship with Carpenter, giving Carpenter a motive for the murder.
Auto-Focus centres on Bob Crane's personal life and to a lesser degree his relationship with Carpenter. Perhaps because of this, it is largely an actor's movie. The film is driven by Greg Kinnear's performance as Crane. And while Kinnear resembles Crane very little, he does give a convincing performance. Kinnear has Crane's facial expressions, mannerisms, and vocal patterns down to such a point that it is not distracting at all that the two men don't really resemble each other. What is more, Kinnear handles the task of playing a man who goes from being a popular DJ to the star of a hit TV sitcom to a man whose obsessions and addictions have nearly ruined him quite well. Indeed, Auto Focus shows both sides of Crane--a strict family man who disliked cursing in the media and a sex addict who films his encounters with women. Crane certainly led a double life.
The rest of the cast handles their parts quite well. As Carpenter, William Dafoe is appropriate creepy as a man obsessed with sex and perhaps Crane as well. Rita Wilson and Maria Bello both give solid performances as Crane's first and second wives respectively. Kurt Fuller not only looks like Werner Klemperer, but gives such a dead on performance that it is hard to believe that it is not Klemperer himself. Only Michael Rogers falls short playing Richard Dawson. While Rogers gives an acceptable performance, he does not really look, sound, or move enough like Dawson to be convincing to me.
As near I can tell from my knowledge of Bob Crane's life, Hogan's Heroes, and the history of video technology, Auto Focus is for the most part historically accurate. I only have one caveat. The movie makes it sound as if Crane did little more than the Disney film Superdad, a cameo in the Disney film Gus, and dinner theatre in the latter part of his life. No mention is made of the short lived 1975 sitcom The Bob Crane Show. While the series lasted only three months, it would still seem worth mentioning as the only other sitcom besides Hogan's Heroes to star Bob Crane.
Auto Focus is a dark, disturbing film. It is upsetting to watch Crane go from a firm family man who didn't swear, smoke, or drink (albeit one who enjoyed magazines like Gent) to a sex addict who has pretty much destroyed his own career. Director Paul Schrader pulls no punches in this film, with a graphic portrayl of Crane's descent (indeed, I must warn that anyone who is uncomfortable with sexual content in movies should probably stay away from this movie). Regardless, the movie is certainly worth watching for Kinnear's portrayl of an extremely talented, but extremely flawed man.