Auto Focus (18)
The strange and sad life of the ‘60s American TV star Bob Crane is the stuff that fills page after page of the scandal sheets that proliferate on supermarket shelves across the United States.
A popular, funny and respected television actor made famous through the spoof WWII prisoner of war series Hogan’s Heroes, Crane met a bloody and seedy end in 1978 when he was bludgeoned to death in a low-rent hotel room by an unknown nocturnal intruder.
Paul Schrader’s dramatised biopic casts light on Crane’s shadowy secret life – a life dominated both by an insatiable thirst for kinky sex and the figure of John Carpenter, a seductive, possibly bisexual electronics whiz. It was Carpenter’s skills with a range of hi-fi and video equipment that made him a magnet for Crane, ostensibly a non-smoking, tee-total family man and all-American good guy but with a latent hunger for the kind of deviant sex his wife (Rita Wilson) won’t deliver.
Carpenter’s hypnotic control over Crane and his way with the ladies turns Crane from bored husband and pleasant dad to a full-time lech who lives by his own motto: “A day without sex is a day wasted.”
Every waking minute is devoted to locating willing females who will agree to be filmed as they swap themselves between Crane and Carpenter. Afterwards they watch their orgy films together on Carpenter’s rigged-up home video. “It’s like the Polaroid of the movies,” says a gleeful Crane.
As an examination of parasitic control and the manipulation of a gauche and malleable man, Auto Focus is creepily effective. Willem Dafoe, as Carpenter, inveigles his way into Crane’s life – though Crane is curiously willing to be thoroughly corrupted in traditional Jekyll and Hyde fashion – and can be considered to be the main focus in his life from that moment on.
And as Crane descends into his unhealthy obsession with sex, so his good looks begin to fade; unlike Dorian Gray, there is no secret portrait in the attic. As played by Greg Kinnear, Crane’s career evaporates, his first marriage crumbles and his second, to an actress (Maria Bello) who puts up with his nightly philanderings in the mistaken understanding that it will keep their marriage fresh, is merely a façade to conceal his real interests.
In fact Crane’s interest in acting undergoes a complete U-turn: when the TV show is cancelled he takes to the road, starring in “dinner theatre” productions before bored audiences of diners. Meanwhile he spends the small hours intricately constructing his own amateurish films from hours of video footage shot by Carpenter and himself.
As a study of obsession and self-destruction Auto Focus is compelling, yet Schrader fails to offer much analysis of the real man. Carpenter’s Svengali-like influence is hinted at for Crane’s fall from grace and his fascination with voyeuristic filming, and the suggestion is buoyed up by the deliciously repellent playing of the character by Dafoe, here outdoing himself as an inhabitant of the gutter who finds a naïve victim, uses and exploits him and gets more out of the relationship than he does. Crane might be living a hedonist’s dream but it’s Carpenter who reaps all the real benefits.
Crane’s reputation precedes him into the strange celebrity grey area of Z-grade TV guest spots where, even then, his sex addiction embarrasses him in front of a horrified crew and studio audience. He even hits on his teenage son’s curvy young date, drooling like a cartoon wolf. He just can’t help himself.
A sordid and sad tale of one man’s spiral from popular performer to sleazy pariah, Auto Focus places a bit-part player on centre stage. Tragic that he only achieved the stardom he yearned for after his death – a murder that Schrader places squarely at Carpenter’s hands. Still, he’s not telling; he died without ever confessing.
Star rating: ***