Patty Hearst, Mishima, Jesus: Paul Schrader has always had a soft spot for celebs. So it proves with Auto Focus, a compelling probe into the life of '60s TV star Bob Crane, who shot to fame in World War Two shit-com Hogan's Heroes, only to end up murdered in 1978.
Only after his gruesome demise - he was bludgeoned to death, then his corpse throttled with an electrical cable - did the sordid truth emerge: Bob was a sex addict who liked to record his conquests on videotape.
In Schrader's hands, the actor (played by Greg Kinnear) emerges as a tragically deluded soul unable to control his impulses, his mantra being: "A day without sex is a day wasted." And like many of the people Schrader has written or directed films about (most notably Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull), Crane is as incapable of comprehending his behaviour as he is of changing it.
If this sounds like a drag, it isn't. Schrader sets his anti-hero's fall from grace against a backdrop of vivid '60s Americana, only darkening the palette in the later, more lurid stages. But the film's masterstroke is to elevate a relatively minor figure in Crane's life, VCR salesman John Carpenter, and make him the actor's partner-in-slime.
Carpenter (Willem Dafoe) plays Mephistopheles to Crane's Faust, first by providing him with recording equipment and later by laying on beaver every night. Yet Dafoe manages to make him a likeable scumbag, only allowing Carpenter's dark side free reign when Crane unceremoniously casts him aside. Until then, their relationship is represented as a strange cocktail of friendship, co-dependency and sexual attraction.
Auto Focus' real surprise, though, is Greg Kinnear, the As Good As It Gets actor revelling in Bobby-boy's seediness while never losing sight of the misplaced decency within. Overlooked in the ongoing awards season, it's a fearless performance that deserves to be recognised.