Auto-Erotic Fixation

Niels Strandskov

There is no question that Hogan’s Heroes was oddly cast. The half-hour television comedy about life in a Luftwaffe prison camp in World War II included four Jews in the roles of four principal German military men. Two of the cast had actually survived Nazi concentration camps (John Banner who played Sgt. Schultz and Robert Clary who played Cpl. LeBeau.) And then there was Bob Crane. Apparently square in every respect, Crane had entered show business as a drummer and disc jockey. He was married, had two children, and had acted previously on the utterly conventional Donna Reed Show as a recurring character. This pose of normality was not the whole story however, as Crane maintained an enthusiastic interest in promiscuous casual sex and home-made pornography.

Paul Schrader’s new film, Auto Focus, chronicles that interest, and paints a picture of Crane (played by Greg Kinnear) as so driven by his obsession with sex that he destroys his career and his two families, and eventually loses his life. The film also makes a strong case that it was Crane’s friend John Carpenter – not the famous schlock director, but a color-blind video technician to the stars – who dragged him down into the sexual morass and may well have murdered him. Disturbingly, the film seems to contend that one of Carpenter’s motivations for murdering Crane could have been his bisexuality and unrequited crush on the star. Auto Focus is fixated on pathologizing all of Crane’s actions from the time he took the starring role on Hogan’s Heroes in 1965 until his death in Scottsdale in 1978.

Except for its rush to judge all of Crane’s actions through the lens of “sex addiction,” Auto Focus is a remarkably compelling evocation of the show biz life from the late ’60s through the late ’70s. Kinnear and Willem Dafoe (as Crane’s disquieting sidekick Carpenter) capture the enthusiasm of adolescents who never grew up, as they scurry around Hollywood, picking up loose women, shagging them and recording it all on the then-novel medium of video tape. The rest of the cast is also convincing as the principal characters in the Bob Crane story. Schrader has assembled a set of Hogan’s Heroes impersonators that make the scenes set on the soundstages where the show was filmed very believable. The sets and costumes are likewise exceptionally precise in their recreation of Bob Crane’s tatty demimonde. Retro-philes will thrill at the chance to catch a glimpse of Carpenter’s swinging bachelor pad, with its clunky hi-fi sets and comically hip furniture.

Auto Focus is at odds with itself as it salaciously ogles Crane’s proclivities and simultaneously reviles them. Who among us, given sudden wealth, fame and access, could wholly resist the temptations that Crane fell prey to? It is hardly as though Bob Crane was the only Hollywood star who chose to celebrate success by binging on casual sex. Warren Beatty, an A-list movie star in the same era that Crane slogged through the rigors of a sitcom filming schedule, is well-known for his constant and enthusiastic explorations of his sexuality. Any number of Hollywood stars have destroyed their marriages and provided fodder for the scandal sheets with their own peccadilloes. Yet with the possible exceptions of Fatty Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin, none of them have come to any serious grief because of their trysts. Given that, it seems that Auto Focus fails as a document of Hollywood lifestyles, precisely to the extent that it succumbs to its own temptation to moralize and condemn them.


Auto Focus, Rated R. Directed by Paul Schrader. Starring Greg Kinnear, Willem Dafoe, Rita Wilson. Now playing at the Lagoon Cinema, (612) 825-6006.