AUTO FOCUS directed by Paul Schrader, written by Michael Gerbosi, based on Robert Graysmith's The Murder Of Bob Crane, produced by Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, Todd Rosken, Pat Dollard and Alicia Allain, with Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Rita Wilson, Maria Bello and Ron Leibman. A Mongrel Media release. 107 minutes. Opens Friday (November 8). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 88. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
Now that we're living in a pornotopia, the life of Bob Crane can feel as twee and distant as a flash of ankle. Here's a man who was bludgeoned to death with a camera tripod in a motel room, because he liked to watch.
Crane's arc took him from a Hollywood high starring in Hogan's Heroes to an addictive low cranking out his own amateur pornos, long before Amateur was a section on the video shelf.
It's one of the modern legends of American sleaze, and it drew America's master of moral squalor, Paul Schrader. But the real master stroke in Schrader's film, Auto Focus, is casting Greg Kinnear as Crane.
Kinnear defines breezy, and breezy is the face Bob Crane showed to the world. Even when cornered and accused while in the depths of sex addiction, Auto Focus has Crane pipe up, "Sex is normal! It's good for you. I'm normal!" like he's talking up the virtues of Sunday barbecues.
"There was this family man," says Kinnear, during a festival stop in Toronto, "this one-woman guy who didn't like rock and roll and attacks on the president, and then there was this guy living a lascivious lifestyle, taking these pictures and showing them to strangers. Bringing them together was the job.
"I had to trust Paul in terms of going to some of those darker areas. He has a history of that. He had to trust me in terms of the comedy. I think a lot of things when I think of Paul Schrader, but I don't think comedy."
It's a line that comes with its own rim shot, and it's vintage Kinnear.
In his talk show and during public appearances, with his patented pert twinkle, Kinnear is the guy playing just inside the line. Smart but never condescending. Funny but not bitter. Friendly but not fawning. Well, maybe a little fawning. But it's that elusive quality of looking to be liked that both Kinnear and Schrader exploit so shrewdly in the film.
And yet there's clearly a darker side to Kinnear. He's chosen role after role that depended on projecting sham sincerity. The soap star in Nurse Betty. The shallow brother in Sabrina. Mena Suvari's prof lover in Loser. It's as if he's daring audiences to puncture his glib facade. When he punctured it himself, in fact playing nothing but puncture in As Good As It Gets, he got an Oscar nomination.
Kinnear's great talent -- and likely his great burden -- is that he understands the appeal of appeal. He speaks of Bob Crane as a man who had two masks -- the one he wore on the show, and the one he wore when the show was over.
"But the fact is, he wasn't that vastly different. There was a show- business patter permeating all aspects of his life. In many ways Hogan was the perfect role for his persona."
Though Crane began cheating on his first wife long before he got to Hollywood, it was a tech geek and showbiz hanger-on named John Carpenter who introduced Bob Crane to swinging and the many ways to document it. "Carpenter," Kinnear points out, "was his only friend. That speaks of someone who, socially, is having issues."
Auto Focus takes great glee in showing both Crane and Carpenter getting off on the latest 70s video gear as much as they do on the women. In sex, as in everything, Crane was a hobbyist.
"He had a journal he used to keep of the family weekend water polo matches," Kinnear says. "In this log -- in detailed, crazy, The Shining-type writings -- he wrote which kid scored on which kid, what the scores were, who was guarding who, the details from each quarter of the game, with notations along the side. I thought, "Wow, well, this is a guy whose compulsive nature wasn't just in his sexuality.'
"Most addictions come in twos and threes," he continues. "The fact that he was never drinking or shooting up heroin always struck me as kind of odd. So this aspect struck me as a pretty clear example."
Kinnear is getting his best notices since As Good As It Gets for playing Crane's seamy charm, but he's not about to go too far south from his mainstream perch.
"I think it's a provocative film. I think people will talk about it beyond the popcorn machine, but I don't want to suddenly turn into Mr. Independent."
He adopts a Brit-thespian accent. "All my films from this point on shall have shades of ambiguity, and make you angry! and frustrated! and happy!"
Not an appealing prospect. firstname.lastname@example.org