November 14, 2002

Hollywood Heroes

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Most of us don’t recognize the name Bob Crane, or even the show he starred in for six years — Hogan’s Heroes. But for a generation Crane’s life and mysterious death were the stuff of legends. Now a new generation has insight into this intriguing story brought to life by the talent and versatility of Greg Kinnear and Willem Dafoe in the new indie film Auto Focus.

The movie opens by introducing us to the affable and smiley Crane (Kinnear), a small-time Hollywood DJ about to make the break of his life. He’s been offered the leading role in the questionable new sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. He accepts and begins a somewhat formulaic rise to stardom.

In Hollywood, it seems the gradual corruption of a new star is inevitable, but Crane’s path is decidedly unique. With the help of his new buddy and A/V geek John Carpenter (Dafoe) Crane begins to get in touch with his rampant sex drive, which grows to the point of collapsing his marriage and making his filmed orgies infamous throughout Hollywood. The movie lingers on Crane’s sexual escapades, but never falls prey to the moralism that so often follows such tales. The film follows Crane’s rise and fall and ultimately makes no uncertain speculations about his mysterious death in Arizona.

Auto Focus is halfway between tragedy and comedy –at times portraying things so sadly ridiculous the audience doesn’t know if they should laugh or shake their heads. It’s a good ambiguity, that rises out of a compelling story, well adapted by Micael Gerbosi from the book The Murder of Bob Crane by Robert Graysmith.

Director Paul Schrader adds a gem to his list of films, which has been somewhat stagnant since he wrote the classic Taxi Driver in 1976. His direction is competent, but nothing special. He’s artful at setting the tone through his music and lighting, but the real strength of the movie is in its story and its leading men.

Greg Kinnear gives his most significant performance to date, capturing the essence of an outwardly happy family man of the fifties. He’s got it all, down to the perfect part in his hair and the shiny fluoride smile. Intonation is everything with this role, and he has the voice of an early sitcom star down perfectly.

But it is Dafoe who is truly unforgettable as the creepy John Carpenter. He has all the eagerness of a Hollywood hanger-on, yet a level of scary intensity is evident just beneath the surface. His potential for snapping at any moment is palpable. Equally so is his attachment to Crane.

A host of other characters round out the cast –Crane’s wife and family, their priest, the agent, the girlfriend on the side. All the aspects of a Hollywood success story are there. But it is the dynamic between Kinnear and Dafoe that really makes the movie and they deliver the only two performances that are indispensable. A needy, almost homo-eroticism springs up between them, and leaves the audience wondering who really needs who in this story.

Auto Focus is on one hand a story caught in inevitability — even those unfamiliar with Crane’s life story will have no trouble guessing the gist of the film’s outcome. What happens along the way is what makes a truly interesting and well acted movie.

Archived article by Kiah Beverly