Bob Crane, the star of Hogan’s Heroes, who was murdered in 1978, is an unlikely candidate for a biopic. At best, he was a minor celebrity even during the hit TV show’s seven-year run, which ended in 1971; his subsequent career consisted mostly of guest spots and dinner theater. But Crane’s unsolved murder – he was found bludgeoned in a Scottsdale, Arizona, motel room – has given his life a tabloid glow. So has the revelation, which was an open secret in Hollywood, that he was a sex addict. Surely it was this luridness that compelled Paul Schrader to direct Auto Focus, from a script by Michael Gerbosi. Two of the film’s producers are Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who wrote Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. Luridness plus obsessiveness set against a small-time Hollywood backdrop – what a siren’s song for these filmmakers! But lost in all this, perhaps intentionally, is Crane himself. Played with an affable opacity by Greg Kinnear, he’s the star of the movie, and yet he’s strangely marginal to it. Schrader really isn’t interested in Crane except as the straw man for his moral lessons about sin and sexuality and the nature of celebrity. Auto Focus is the perfect capper to Crane’s career: Even in a movie about himself, he remains minor.
Crane says at one point in the film that he “dreams of finding someone who gets me as I am.” But who is he? The movie presents him as a smiley, likable blank who is largely unaware of his own descent into sleaze. Crane began his showbiz career in Los Angeles as a top-rated radio host before scoring with Hogan’s Heroes, and Schrader makes a point of showing us how clean-cut Crane’s origins were: the high-school-sweetheart wife (Rita Wilson) and suburban home and adorable kids. He doesn’t drink anything stronger than grapefruit juice until he starts his slide, and as for the stash of nudie magazines his wife uncovers, well, this is, after all, the Playboy generation.
The real culprit in Crane’s nosedive, according to the movie, is John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe, all too perfectly cast), the video technician who introduces Crane to the brave new world of home videos. Carpenter encourages Crane to film himself having swinging sex with a parade of women, and Carpenter gets in on the action, too. Their relationship, in its emotional intimacies and difficulties, is far closer to a marriage than Crane’s real ones ever were. (Crane’s second wife, played by Maria Bello, tries to understand his swinging but is cast off.) Carpenter, who may have been bisexual, is the perfect companion until Crane, having hit bottom, rebuffs him in pursuit of a cleaner life. (The movie implies that Carpenter killed him in retaliation.) In the film’s most ghastly-comic scene, the two men casually masturbate while watching one of their home-cooked pornos.
Auto Focus has its murky fascinations, but it suggests the rather sunny notion that if Carpenter had never met Crane, the actor might have entered his dotage still sipping grapefruit juice and sneaking peeks at centerfolds. This is a simplistic psychological profile that only reinforces Crane’s thinness as a character. If we could have perceived from the beginning the seeds of what would take root later, then Crane might have become something more for us than a cog in Schrader’s machinery of drear. Schrader has a not-so-veiled disdain for Crane, which is apparent not only in the marginal way in which he is presented but also in the way Schrader doesn’t even give Crane’s obsessiveness its due. (Nor does he give the family and friends hurt by Crane’s narcissism their due; they’re mostly stick-figure sufferers.) It’s as if Schrader were disclaiming Crane as a prerequisite for making a movie about him. It’s hard to imagine a film featuring sex addiction that has less dazzle. I realize Schrader, who pulled a similar stunt in American Gigolo and Hardcore, was going for a dank sordidness, but shouldn’t there be at least a tingle of pleasure to show why these guys were turned on? Schrader is a scourge with an agenda: One must not show the allure of sin.
Apparently, one must not show the allure of celebrity, either – not even minor celebrity. Even at his career peak, Crane is depicted as completely outside the glittery loop. (His lack of stardom points up for us what stardom can truly be.) Auto Focus approaches the corrupting nature of celebrity sideways, in the same way as, say, Star 80, another movie that tried to cast a giant shadow on the sexual ethos of the Hef era. Schrader is saying that our fascination with movie and TV personalities is a symbiotic sickness, that we feed off them as they feed off us. The pathogen that infects us is best observed in its sorriest state, which is why Bob Crane, and not some big star, is the subject of this movie. Crane is sacrificed so that we might be cured. The question is, who appointed Schrader the doctor?
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Directed by Paul Schrader; starring Greg Kinnear and Willem Dafoe.