As this website’s self-proclaimed Oscar expert, I had already called the Oscar race when Red Dragon was released. But with the film’s mixed reviews and rapidly declining box office, its chances of winning an Oscar quickly faded away. Now, after seeing the stunning performances of Greg Kinnear and Willem Dafoe in Auto Focus, I can talk about an Oscar again.
Directed by Martin Scorsese’s buddy Paul Schrader, Auto Focus tells the story of the rise and fall of Bob Crane. For those unaware: Crane was the star of the 1960s sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes.” Crane was beginning his career in radio as the host of LA’s #1 morning show when he was offered “Hogan’s Heroes.” He almost turned down the role of Colonel Hogan because of the show’s controversial setting. But after his wife Anne (Rita Wilson) read the script and told him she thought it was funny, he accepted the role.
“Hogan’s Heroes” was an instant success, both a blessing and a curse for Bob and his family. Success means more money and security, but it also means long days and less time for family. During his role as Hogan, Bob Crane met the man who would change the course of his life. John Carpenter (not to be confused with the director of the same name), an engineer at Sony Corporation. One day, while on set installing high-end audio equipment in the trailer of Crane’s co-star Richard Dawson, Crane and Carpenter struck up a conversation about their shared love of photography and a new technology Carpenter was peddling: the personal video camera. As Crane spent time with Carpenter visiting strip clubs where he actually preferred playing drums with the house band to watching girls strip, Crane began to deviate from his seemingly normal life. At Carpenter’s urging, Crane began using his celebrity to pick up women for the two of them, luring them to Carpenter’s apartment where he filmed them having sex – a practice that became a pattern and eventually an obsession.
The strange pseudo-friendship of Carpenter and Crane is the germ of the film, its drama arising from the strange, uneasy interaction between these two strange, lonely men. I say pseudo-friendship because Carpenter, as portrayed in the film, is not so much Crane’s friend as he is a fellow traveler, a yes man. It was Carpenter who helped Crane justify his self-destructive behavior. It wasn’t that Carpenter was to blame for Crane destroying both of his marriages or his twisted obsession with videotaping his sexual exploits, rather Carpenter was the devil on Crane’s shoulder, whispering in his ear that he was normal and healthy and there was nothing wrong with what they were doing. Carpenter was the classic enabler.
Greg Kinnear definitely has “Talk Soup” in his rearview mirror and “Auto Focus” will very likely earn him his second Oscar nomination, the first being for his supporting role in “As Good As It Gets.” Willem Dafoe as Carpenter should also have a shot at Oscar gold. So far this year, I haven’t seen a more effective supporting role.
Bob Crane Jr. was a consultant on Auto Focus, helping director Paul Schrader and Kinnear understand his father’s idiosyncrasies and consulting with screenwriter Michael Gerbosi about events in his father’s life. One thing Bob Crane Jr. or anyone else could not advise on was who killed his father. Although all available evidence pointed to Carpenter, who died in 1999, police in Scottsdale, Arizona (where Crane was killed while sleeping in his hotel after a dinner theater performance), bungled the case so badly that by the time Carpenter was finally investigated in 1997, evidence had been lost and prosecutors were forced to drop the case against him.
Bob Crane was one of those guys who had it all: charisma, wit and looks. Unfortunately, he lacked a moral center and his addiction to sex overtook him and probably led to his death. Whether it was Carpenter who killed him remains an open question; the film seems to theorize that he was the killer, although there is speculation that the husband of one of Crane’s many conquests took revenge on him. Whatever happened, I think it’s fitting that the man’s death should be as mysterious as the man himself.