Auto Focus  (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

We've touched previously 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.
  • Leonardo Dicaprio has taken his share of negative reviews in his lifetime, but anybody who knows anything about Rimbaud can tell you that Dicaprio is 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.

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, 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 partner 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 quickly became a prime suspect. According to one theory, he was angry and despondent because Crane wanted to end their association. Scotty 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 Scotty sees his father's life in a very different light. Scotty (he looks almost exactly like his father) maintains a website at http://www.bobcrane.com. The main purpose of the site is to present all of Crane's sex film archives to a curious public (for a fee - you can get three days for $3.95 if you are just mildly curious), but Scotty has also used it recently as a bully pulpit, from which he details the inaccuracies in Auto Focus.

  • The primary factual inaccuracy 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 points out that his dad's porno film archives date all the way back to 1956, and his still pictures go back even further, years before he was Col Hogan, and years before he met John Carpenter. (The film suggests that Crane was Faust and Carpenter was his Mephistopheles.) 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 physical details and facts, however, are Scotty's claims that the film has the tone all wrong, that it is imbued with the 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, Crane's other son (Bobby, from the first marriage) supports the film and served as technical advisor on the screenplay. This is 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 site is 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?

"Ho-gan!!!!"


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. I liked the movie, and was predisposed to be interested in it because I watched Crane on TV when I was a kid. Hogan's Heroes ran through my high school and college years, and Bob Crane was murdered when I was still in my 20's, so Crane is a familiar figure and I was fascinated to see how they portrayed him. I thought that Kinnear and Willem Dafoe turned in excellent characterizations.

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 it 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 convinces me that it is not a factual film. 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.

NUDITY REPORT

Female:

  • various strippers show their breasts and thonged buns: Teri Geary and the Porcelean twins were named specifically

  • one woman was topless at a Hollywood party

  • Amber Griebel was topless in a scene where she stripped for Crane's camera

  • Kitana Baker flashed Crane

  • Maria Bello shows one nipple in a fantasy scene with Sgt Schultz and Col Klink

  • one woman does full-frontal nudity on a tape-within-the-film

  • Many unidentified people were topless or naked in orgy scenes

Male:

  • Greg Kinnear shows his tushy

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 presented professionally. 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 especially engaging.

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. It's a good film.

But I just can't see what prompted Roger Ebert's four stars.

not yet on home video

note: I'm not that much given to notice men's bodies, but I don't know if I have ever seen a man Willem Dafoe's age in such good physical condition. He is 47, and is hard as a rock.

TUNA's THOUGHTS

Auto Focus (2002) is a low budget biopic about Bob Crane (Colonel Hogan of Hogan's Heroes), starting with his arrival in LA as a popular disk jockey, and ending with his murder in Scottsdale, Arizona. It chronicles the effect of his sexual addiction on his life. He started as a conservative happily married Catholic and non-drinker, but had a secret stash of porn. After his rise to stardom, and with the help of his new best friend, John Carpenter, he divorced, starting making his own porn in which he costarred, remarried, and eventually lost all sense of propriety and self control, which, of course, didn't do his career any good.

The story was at least somewhat fictionalized, to make for a better narrative. For instance, in the film, he had the same loyal manager, whereas, in real life, he went through several. He definitely was killed in a hotel in Scottsdale, and had a huge collection of porn, much of it starring him. He was known to have hit on nearly every woman he met. Although Carpenter was tried for his murder, he was acquitted. There is debate among his heirs as to whether he was a major league perv before stardom, or whether it was success and easy availability of women that caused his obsession. There is also debate as to whether or not he was ready to seek counseling and reconcile with his second wife when he was murdered.

To show the steady decline down the "slippery slope," the filmmakers started out with bright colors, warm film, good lighting and dolly shots, and slowly degraded to colder color temperature film stock, ugly muted colors, blown out backgrounds, shaky cam, and nothing but close-ups. I understand why they did it, but would have preferred that they maintained good photography start to finish.

It managed to lose money with a US gross of $2M. It is possible that those who would normally have enjoyed the nudity and sex (they had to make cuts to avoid an NC-17) felt uncomfortable with the darkness of the film, and the strong message about the evils of sexual addiction. On the other hand, it has far too much nudity for those who do agree with the message, thus leaving a fairly small audience.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 4/4, Berardinelli 3/4, Apollo 77/100.

The People Vote ...

  • with their dollars: made for a modest $7 million dollars, it still failed, grossing only two million

Other resources ...

IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, Scoop says, "it's a C+, I guess. So much sex and nudity and talk about sex that it can't really be considered mainstream, but it does have its moments."  Tuna says,"C.  The acting was excellent, but I enjoyed the start more than the end, because the conclusion was predictable, and very dark."

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