Directed By: Paul Schrader
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Maria Bello
Tag line: "A day without sex is a day wasted"
Trivia: The bald actor who plays a reporter interviewing Crane about midway through the film is Crane's real son, Bob Crane Jr.
Paul Schrader has made a career out of delving into the psyches of disturbed individuals, both as a writer (Taxi Driver, Rolling Thunder, Raging Bull) and director (Hardcore, Affliction). Auto Focus, his 2002 film exploring the life and death of actor Bob Crane, presents us with a lead character who, by all appearances, was living the American dream, and having a great time doing so. But beneath his beaming smile and warm personality, Bob Crane hid a secret so dark that it likely cost him his life.
Early in his career, Crane (Greg Kinnear) was a happily married man, a radio disc jockey who attended church regularly with his wife, Anne (Rita Wilson) and their children. But around the time he landed the role of Col. Robert Hogan in the hit TV series, Hogan’s Heroes, things started to change, and the catalyst for this change was new pal, John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe). An audio technician, Carpenter introduced Crane to a brand new technology called home video, and acted as his guide through the seedy world of strip clubs and sex parties. To further complicate matters, Crane also struck up an affair with actress Patricia Olson (Mario Bello), one of his co-stars on Hogan’s Heroes. After learning of her husband’s multiple “indiscretions” Anne divorced Crane, leaving him free to marry Patricia (who agreed to overlook his sexual promiscuity). But when Hogan’s Heroes was cancelled, Bob Crane’s career took a nosedive, due, in part, to his reputation as a sex fiend. Stuck performing in dinner theaters, his marriage to Patricia fell apart, and Crane began to suspect that his friendship with Carpenter was costing him dearly. So, he decided to end their relationship. But it was Bob Crane’s life that ended instead on the night of June 28, 1978, when he was bludgeoned to death in a Scottsdale, Arizona motel room, a crime that, to this day, remains unsolved.
Auto Focus flat-out implicates Carpenter in Crane’s murder, implying he relished the attention he received whenever the two men appeared in public together, and couldn’t bear the thought of it all coming to an end (for the record, Carpenter was cleared of any wrongdoing in 1992). But Auto Focus isn’t so much about the mystery surrounding Bob Crane’s death as it is the tragedy that was his life. Kinnear and Dafoe do a fine job portraying best friends who brought out the worst in each other, and Schrader perfectly captures the raw emotion of a man who, despite his reputation as a nice guy (and he was, apparently, a very nice guy), was controlled by an addiction that transformed him from one of Hollywood’s hottest stars into a liability no studio would take a chance on.
In telling the story of Bob Crane, Auto Focus functions as both a biopic of a talented, troubled individual and a commentary on the lurid side of Hollywood.