Auto Focus

Since everything in Hollywood is based on perception, most celebrities are forced to keep their private lives private. It may have been easier back in Hollywood’s golden age, when gossip queens Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper were controlled by their publishers. With the expansion of cable and the Internet, keeping a secret has become impossible.

Sure, it keeps the folks at the “E” cable network employed, but do we still care who sleeps with whom? Wasn’t it better when we were able to walk into a theater, watch a movie, and not have the experienced tarnished by the star’s personal baggage?

After sitting through director Paul Schrader’s “Auto Focus,” I will never be able to look at “Super Dad” the same way. “Super Dad” is actor Bob Crane, whose claim to fame was starring as Colonel Hogan in the 1960’s comedy series “Hogan’s Heroes.” Crane went on to star in a number of family movies (“Snowball Express”), and a series of personal porn films.

Crane having a dark side isn’t as shocking as how well he maintained the facade of a happy family man while exploring the dark alleys of his sexual imagination. One walk down those alleys led to his murder in 1987, which while never solved, has led to all sorts of speculation. Director Schrader and screenwriter Michael Gerbosi deftly mix fact with fiction to create a disturbing cautionary tale.

Crane was a so-so actor, not much more than the pretty boy he played on “Hogan’s Heroes.” When we first meet him, he’s a happily married family man working as a Los Angeles DJ. One fateful meeting with his agent led to “Hogan’s Heroes,” a role Crane was afraid would ruin his career. “Funny Nazis?” Little did Crane know it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Hogan’s Heroes” ran for six seasons, turning Crane into a recognizable face, which would become both a blessing and a curse.

Crane was not only addicted to his new found fame, but with the help of his new friend John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), he became addicted to sex. Real nasty sex, the kind you record for posterity. That’s how Crane met Carpenter, a video technician for a major studio who supplied Crane with the necessary equipment to make home movies.

Schrader is the perfect choice to bring this modern day Greek tragedy to life. As the writer of “Taxi Driver” and the director of “Affliction” and “Hard Core,” Schrader understands obsessive, addicted characters, and uses his insight to help us understand them. All of his characters are flawed, but that’s what makes them so fascinating. Under Schrader’s direction, Gerbosi’s smart, extremely perceptive dialogue breathes with honesty.

Greg Kinnear faces the biggest challenge of his big screen career playing Crane, and he’s just brilliant. He doesn’t really look like Crane, but instantly makes the character his own. What we end up with is a decent man whose inner demons speak louder than words. There’s a lot of inner conflict in Kinnear’s performance, a struggle that becomes evident through his piercing eyes and daunting looks.

Kinnear has always impressed me with his ability to play heroic types (We Were Soldiers) and romantic leads (Nurse Betty), but in “Auto Focus” he accomplishes something different: he takes a not-so-likeable character and still makes us care about him. Even at his most reckless, thanks to Kinnear’s complete understanding of the character, we find ourselves in Crane’s corner.

Dafoe has made a career playing creeps, and he’s on the money as seedy best friend Carpenter. Dafoe isn’t satisfied with turning Carpenter into a villain, but a man confused by his sexual identity and need to be around someone like Crane, whom he sees as the only outlet for his numb existence. Despite their differences, Crane and Carpenter make each other feel alive, and when that special bond is severed, Crane ends up dead.

Schrader and writer Gerbosi aren’t concerned with who did it, rather how someone like Crane could end up so badly. Duality is a recurring theme in Schrader’s films. His characters always find themselves standing at a mental crossroad, and Crane is no different. Schrader turns Crane’s fall from grace into an exploration of the human condition.

Despite his proclivities, Crane did manage to settle down with two smart women. Rita Wilson is admirable as Crane’s first wife Anne, who takes the kids and leaves after she discovers his addiction, and Maria Bello is a dead ringer for second wife Patricia, his “Hogan’s Heroes” co- star. The filmmakers also manage to re-create the television series and its cast with amazing authenticity.


“Auto Focus” develops into engrossing drama


Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Maria Bello, Rita Wilson, Ron Liebman. Directed by Paul Schrader.


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