Auto Focus


IMDB summary

by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I've touched many times upon the subject of actors who were born to play their roles.

  • Eleanor of Aquitaine had two families, one in France, one in England, having been married to the king of each country. Katharine Hepburn was descended from both of Eleanor's families, and when she played Eleanor in The Lion in Winter, she was exactly the same age as the character.
  • Anybody who really knows anything about Rimbaud can tell you that the young Dicaprio was essentially the same guy. Rimbaud was too young to be doing what he did, looked even younger, and was cocky about it. If you read a description of Rimbaud's personality or his looks, you will think they are talking about Leo, so it was no surprise to see Dicaprio play Rimbaud in Total Eclipse.
  • Madonna and Eva Duarte (Evita Peron)? Fuggidaboudit! The same woman. It would have been awesome casting if only Madonna could act.

I think you can add to the list Greg Kinnear and Bob Crane. Some wag once referred to Kinnear, back in his talk show days, as "the hardest smirking man in show business." True enough, and if you could go back to the 60's, you could say the same about Bob Crane. Crane started his show biz career as a shallow, glib, wisecracking DJ, once the top radio voice in Los Angeles. Kinnear came to prominence as a shallow, glib wisecracking VJ, except that he hosted video clips from talk shows rather than music videos. Both men were very handsome in an approachable, clean-cut way, and both managed to parlay their charm and looks into an acting career. If you saw distant photos of them from the right angles, Kinnear might even pass for Crane. Kinnear is a much better actor than Crane, but that's OK, because we're watching a movie in which Kinnear plays Crane, so we want him to have some aptitude other than a superficial resemblance.

I don't know if Greg Kinnear has any demons which need exorcising, but Crane sure seems to have had some, at least according to the movie, and Kinnear was able to portray that effectively. The movie's version of Crane's life suggests that he was a model citizen and family man before he became a star, then quickly turned away from his family when stardom posed too many temptations. Eventually his leisure time came to consist of sex, sex, and more sex, most of it in front of a camera, preserved to this day. Left with little career after Hogan's Heroes left the air and Disney fired him, Crane toured the country doing dinner theater, which was really just a new context in which to get laid a lot more. He managed to link up with a particularly sleazy wing man in his encounters, and together they explored the limits of the 70's swingin' lifestyle. It all ended in tragedy when Crane was bludgeoned to death in an Arizona hotel room in 1978, a murder still officially unsolved.

Tongue Magazine described the murder as follows:

"In the early-morning hours of June 29, 1978, in Scottsdale, Arizona, where Crane was appearing in the play Beginner's Luck, someone entered his apartment, bludgeoned him to death, tied an electrical cord around his neck for good measure, and fled the scene. Although any number of irate husbands and boyfriends of Crane's conquests probably wanted him dead, Carpenter (Crane's wing man) quickly became a prime suspect. According to one theory, he was angry and despondent because Crane wanted to end their association. Scott Crane suggests that his father broke from Carpenter because his parents, who had separated and initiated divorce proceedings, were in the process of reconciling, and Crane had begun seeing a psychiatrist about his sexual obsession."

Crane's son Scott is not a fan of this movie. He used to maintain a website at, the main purpose of which was to present all of Crane's sex film archives to a curious public (for a fee - you could get three days for $3.95 if you were just mildly curious), but the site acquired a second purpose after this film came out. Scott used it as a bully pulpit to deliver sermons about the inaccuracies in Auto Focus, including the following:

  • The primary factual correction presented by Crane is the fact that his dad never had a penile implant, as suggested in the film. Scotty refutes that thoroughly, and even provides a picture of his father's prodigious all-natural member, as photographed by Bob himself in 1956.
  • Scotty further points out that the film incorrectly posits that it was success and John Carpenter that corrupted his father. In the film's world, Crane was Faust and Carpenter was his Mephistopheles. In the real world, Bob Crane's porno film archives dated all the way back to 1956, and his still pictures went back even further, years before he was Col Hogan, and years before he met John Carpenter. Scotty says, "my father had been having extramarital affairs and photographing hundreds of nude women engaged in sexual activity since the 1940s."
  • Scotty also points out that his dad wasn't into any S&M, as the movie suggests.
  • More important than the raw facts, however, are Scotty's claims that the film has the tone all wrong, that it is imbued with the dark tone of director Paul Shrader's life, not Bob Crane's. According to Scotty, his dad's sex films are filled with fun and jokes and goofy music and cutaways to TV shows. The material limns the same old happy, silly, unthreatening persona we expect from Bob Crane, not the dark, miserable sleazebag suggested by the last act of Auto Focus.

On the other hand, Bobby Crane, another son from a different marriage, supports the film and served as technical advisor on the screenplay.

The sons' disagreements constitute a complex issue, with private agendas. Crane divorced Bobby's mother to marry Scotty's mom. My take is that Scotty is right about the factual inaccuracies, but has a highly inflammatory personality and is unwilling to accept the necessary artistic license which makes a biopic different from a docu-drama. Whether you agree with him or not, Scotty's defunct site was an interesting read. My favorite bit of gossip in it was the suggestion that John Carpenter, the alleged bisexual who was tried for Crane's murder and who was continually trying to push Crane into some homosexual contact, was actually having a sexual relationship with Richard Dawson!

Dawson? Not Werner Klemperer?


After I watched the film, I was rather shocked to see that Roger Ebert gave it four stars, virtually assuring it a spot in his annual Top 10. It's a good film, but I just can't see what prompted Ebert's four stars. The solid but unspectacular 6.6 score at IMDb seems about right to me, I thought that Kinnear and Willem Dafoe turned in excellent characterizations as Crane and Carpenter, and the movie held my interest, but I was predisposed to be interested in it because I watched Crane on TV when I was a kid. After all, Hogan's Heroes ran all through my high school and college years, and Bob Crane was murdered when I was still in my 20's, so Colonel Hogan was a familiar figure and I was fascinated to see how they portrayed him. I think it is reasonable to say that it is a three-star movie, and I recommend it if you're interested in the subject matter and not offended by extreme sex and nudity, but I didn't see the masterpiece that Mr Ebert saw. 

What I saw was a very close parallel in style and plot to Requiem for a Dream - except that Paul Shrader substituted sex addition for heroin addiction. It's easier to watch than Requiem, because orgies are inherently more watchable than festering, infected limbs, but it followed the same general formula, and used very similar musical riffs to reinforce the mood of the "decline" period.

I guess you don't have to view Auto Focus as a cautionary tale. You can say it is a biopic, but a biopic needs to have one of two things going for it. Either (1) it is a completely historical picture that presents the truth in an entertaining or educational way, or (2) it uses the basic shell of a celebrity's life as the fabric to weave a movie structure which succeeds on its own, and becomes a film we would watch even if we knew it were fictional. I don't think Auto Focus is a great success by either criterion. Scotty Crane has convinced me that it is not a factual film so, since we know that the characters are somewhat fictional, we are left asking this question: "If we thought the characters were completely fictional, would we still think it was a great film?" My answer is no.

I suppose that leaves the film with a fairly narrow audience. If you are familiar with Bob Crane and are interested in learning more about his very real sexual exploits and his putative dark side, then you should see it, because it is a slick and professional movie. If you aren't specifically interested in the subject matter, you will probably not be so enthusiastic. If the character had been named Joe Blow, and if the film had not been populated with characterizations of Hollywood figures familiar to me, I would have found it a watchable movie, but not an especially engaging one.