Celebrities have long known that their public image is one of the most important things they can possess. Yet, there was a time when that was kept separated from their private lives, much like that afforded politicians such as J.F.K.
Friends, family and industry insiders often knew what was going on in any given celebrity's life, but out of respect, embarrassment or common sense they didn't go public with such information. In addition, the press, paparazzi and general public didn't seem as obsessed with such behind closed doors material, unlike today.
Oh, but what those doors could tell us about certain well-known people. Like everyone else, celebrities of the past had their own secrets, peculiarities and hidden lives. Few are as tantalizing - in a tabloid TV sort of way - as that of Bob Crane.
Best known for playing the title character in the popular 1960s TV sitcom, "Hogan's Heroes," the seemingly normal and innocuous actor was obsessed with women, sex and capturing both on film and videotape. That much is known since such visual evidence was later discovered, but it's still debatable whether they and/or Crane's activities led to his brutal and still unsolved murder in 1978.
No stranger to telling tales of characters obsessed with a wide variety of things, writer/director Paul Schrader ("Affliction," "American Gigolo") - along with co-screenwriter Michael Gerbosi (making his feature film debut) - has decided to tackle the Crane story in "Auto Focus."
A gritty and grimy story, the film -- based on the book "The Murder of Bob Crane" by Robert Graysmith -is a generally well made effort that focuses on the actor's life and activities from his days as a LA radio DJ in 1964 up until his death.
A fictionalized drama stemming from facts and interpolation rather than a documentary - E!'s "True Hollywood Story" already took that angle - the film shows the devastating effects of Crane's obsession with pornography. As bad as alcoholism or other behavioral maladies, the sex addiction clouded the actor's judgment, ruined his marriages and eventually derailed both his career and his life.
Not surprisingly, the film isn't exactly what one would call an uplifting or "feel good" experience as the personal and professional downward spiral isn't particularly pleasant to watch. That, of course, is the point of the script, but the film is hypnotically compelling in a car crash sort of fashion where one can't look away from the wreckage. That's particularly true for those of us who grew up watching Crane and sensing and believing that he was a famous but otherwise normal and good-natured sort like any of our dads.
Of course, most of our fathers weren't into such sexual practices and didn't have friends like John Carpenter (not the "Halloween" director) who helped fuel and turn the actor's interest in porn into a debilitating disease and was charged with but never convicted of Crane's murder.
To pull off such an unsavory tale, a filmmaker needs a strong cast and good performances from them, and Schrader pretty much gets that from his. That said, I'm not sure I would have chosen Greg Kinnear ("We Were Soldiers," "As Good As It Gets") for the lead. Not only does he not really look like the late actor, but some of his performances in films such as "Someone Like You," "Loser" and "Dear God" would not have inspired confidence in most filmmakers that he could pull off the part.
Yet, once one gets past the less than perfect impersonation - the "Hogan's Heroes" outfits, scenes and dialogue help, but won't blow away anyone - as well as the material dealing with that show, the actor progressively fits better into the role and eventually turns in a rather good performance as this troubled man.
He is constantly overshadowed, however, by Willem Dafoe ("Spider-Man," "Shadow of the Vampire") who excels at playing Carpenter as a fellow obsessed character. His obsession, though, wasn't just with sex, but with Crane as well - at least as portrayed here - and Dafoe is so appropriately seedy that you'll be apt to ponder if he's about to sprout any tendrils.
Since he's not playing a well-known character, Dafoe doesn't have to worry about the impersonation bit - unlike Kinnear or Kurt Fuller ("Scary Movie," "Pushing Tin") as Werner Klemperer (Col Klink), Michael Rodgers ("The Patriot," "Thomas and the Magic Railroad") as Richard Dawson, or Lyle Kanouse ("Whipped," "Temptation") as John Banner (Sgt. Schultz) - and thus nails the part.
Supporting work from Rita Wilson ("The Story of Us," "Runaway Bride") and Maria Bello ("Duets," "Coyote Ugly") playing the actor's two wives and Ron Leibman ("Dummy," "Just the Ticket") as his increasingly concerned agent are all solid.
As far as the film's technical merits, it's pure Schrader and the shaky camera work and extreme close-ups are both effective and frustrating. He does have Kinnear do some occasional voice over narration, but interestingly doesn't utilize much period music or go for the style that made other period films such as "Goodfellas" or "Blow" entertaining.
No, entertaining isn't something the filmmaker is striving for, and there's nothing wrong with that. Even so, viewers may feel like they need a shower after watching this increasingly disturbing film that rates as a 6.5 out of 10.