Auto Focus: Laboring in the shadow
Not all lives fit neatly into the TV Biography format. The exceptions are the stuff movie biographies like Auto Focus are made of. Don't ask me to name three. The closest comparison I can think of is the far superior All That Jazz, in which Bob Fosse told his own story (lightly fictionalized with the names changed) with more music and pizzazz and less nudity and explicit sex. But Auto Focus is the story of Bob Crane, best remembered for Hogan's Heroes, the CBS sitcom he starred in from 1965 to 1971. OK, he's only remembered for that unless you read about his 1978 murder.
Greg Kinnear, who already has an Academy Award nomination to his credit for As Good as It Gets, tries to shake his nice guy image by playing Crane, "a likable guy" with a dark side. The agent who warned him not to work with children or animals should have added Willem Dafoe to the list.
Dafoe plays John Carpenter (not the filmmaker), Crane's best friend, and mops the screen with Kinnear in all of their many scenes together. After a clever, lounge-y, '50s-style title sequence to a Buster Poindexter song, we meet Crane, a Los Angeles radio announcer who's been happily married to Anne (Rita Wilson) for 15 years. His hobbies are drumming and photography, and Anne finds a stash of magazines of "photo studies" in his darkroom.
Bob wants to make feature films but likes the script his agent (Ron Leibman) offers him for a TV series "set in a German prison camp." It makes him a star but doesn't change his life as much as meeting Carpenter, who introduces him to the latest electronics, including a "VTR - Video Tape Recorder."
John also starts Bob going to strip clubs after work, where Bob enjoys himself because they let him play drums with the band. From there, it's a natural progression to start bringing women to Carpenter's bachelor pad. John surprises Bob by videotaping some of the action, and Bob loves it!
It's hard to say when a hobby becomes a habit, but Bob's days of being a "one-woman man" are behind him. He tells Patricia (Maria Bello, one of my favorite underused actresses), a second-season replacement as the woman who says, "Commandant, Col. Hogan to see you," "I dream about finding someone who gets me, who I am"; she tells him he's found her. So he trades Anne for Patti.
The post-Hogan years are frustrating for Crane, career-wise. Rumors about his private life make it hard for him to find work other than touring in dinner theaters. He tries more than once to change his luck by dumping Carpenter, and this eventually leads to his death. Although Carpenter, now dead, was never convicted of Crane's murder in court, no one who sees this film will have any doubt about his guilt.
Nor will they doubt that Crane led a wild, strange life, even if the movie only scratches the surface of it. The numerous sex scenes push the boundaries of the R rating, even if they suggest more than they actually show. "A day without sex is a day wasted," Crane and Carpenter chant like a mantra.
Director Paul Schrader is often heavy-handed, but in this case he may have treated his subject too lightly. "A hilarious romp about a man who betrayed two wives and was murdered by his best friend" sounds as marketable as "a jolly comedy about the good times in a Nazi POW camp."
Bob Crane Jr., Bob's son with Anne, cooperated with the filmmakers, perhaps in hopes of making his "Daddy Dearest." Scott, his son by Patti, reportedly did not cooperate and has dissed the finished product.
Auto Focus is hardly an American tragedy. We're left with the feeling that Bob Crane was a mediocre talent (who got lucky) and a mediocre human being (who got unlucky). Kinnear's performance probably captures him as well as anyone could, but it's hard to appreciate him when he's acting in Dafoe's shadow for most of the picture.