Friday, February 4, 2011

Brad Renfro

The Hollywood party syndrome – sometimes it gets the best of people. In the case of Brad Renfro, the Los Angeles fast lane slammed him into a near-silent knell – the kind Hollywood rings for you when they don’t want to know you.

Renfro was a field-day for the yellow press. His long line of arrests were well-publicized as he tore along. We can hardly call his acting career a canter. It was an impetuous gallop and always through some farmer’s cornfield. Kicking up the sod, tearing up the rows. He was going to have his fun.

At the age of ten he was discovered by one of those Hollywood casting scouts, plucked out of his native Tennessee like a flower on a hillside. They slapped him into the lead role of John Grisham’s The Client surrounded by big-name actors like Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones and Mary-Louise Parker. This was Renfro’s baptism into the roiling kettle of Hollywood hedonism. There went his childhood.

For not long after that he was emblazoned all over those feverish teen girl rags in sexualized clothes and poses. What kind of journalist writes for those? What kind of photographer takes pictures of boys his age and hawks them like sexual commodities to anyone who can turn a page? They had Brad Renfro shirtless; wearing low-riding black leather pants like the ones Jim Morrison wore in Gloria Stavers’ photo spread.

The difference, however, was that Gloria Stavers was shooting a man for her teeny-bopper magazine, not a child. Morrison in those pictures had not only been around the block, his elk-baritone rattled jaws. He was a thing to be protected from, Stavers should have caveat’ed, and not corrupted. After that shoot Ms. Stavers may not have recovered her gait for weeks. Nobody has a problem with that. The Editor-in-Chief of SIXTEEN Magazine got what she deserved (and probably wanted), but some of the pictures taken of Brad Renfro for that genre of periodical are another story.

After The Client, Renfro was sucked into the Hollywood machine. They got their money’s worth out of him every year. He worked steadily from his first movie in 1994 until 2006 even despite his horrendous drug addictions. In 2001, for example, he turned out five movies. Usually he would work in one or two films per year.

There was no childhood for Renfro after he left Tennessee. Soon the Hollywood vampire would suck blood from one vein while he injected coke into another. This became his life – moving in a world that vacillated between the brightly-lit camera eye and orgasmic underground of the L.A. Baiae. Like many who bit the dust before him of the same disease, they would concede that the glittering smog-pit was a pleasure dome until you fell out of her favor.

The money was good, the lanes were fast and the drugs were hard. Once a thrill-seeking rebel without a cause gets a taste of that, often it is like a reef shark at a feeding frenzy. The eyes are sheathed in white and nobody comes up till the drugs are gone. The director of Bully, Larry Clark, said that Brad Renfro was the worst case he had seen.

In order to get the cameras rolling on Bully, Clark had to kidnap his star from Knoxville, Tennessee, personally. He lured Renfro into his car and took off for Florida while the young actor went through cocaine withdrawals. Renfro had been injecting cocaine into both arms when Larry Clark came to collect him. By this point Renfro was riding high on a wave of status that his previous film roles had given him. As long as he had what they call “the magic” in Hollywood, he could get in trouble, get arrested, go to rehab and still enjoy the ride. At 18, however, he had reached his zenith. Larry Clark would see the last of Brad Renfro’s heyday.

It is a sad thing to see how rapidly and rabidly the Hollywood machine exploited young Mr. Renfro. He was marketed as a child sex symbol by teen magazines and then as a porn star on the set of Bully by an industry knowing that nothing sells like sex. It was as if they could not wait until he turned 18 so they could cast him in a movie riddled with soft-core pornography. To some folks this might appear unwholesome. The word “wrong” might even rear its head.

Naturally the selling point of Bully was naked teenagers having sex. This took off like a rocket in Japan where eager-to-please, smitten young women were lined up outside of Renfro’s hotel. One of these girls would become the mother of his son, Yamato. Daddy was a rolling stone.

In 2002 Renfro’s acting career had crested and was on its sad descent. The fire had gone out of his deliveries. The Hollywood party syndrome had aged him. He looked older than his years at 19 and 20. The magic that had catapulted him to stardom was gone. His performances had mellowed like the oratory of an aging politician. He no longer spat fire, but rather mumbled his lines in a kind of lackluster insecurity. He had resigned himself to the downward spiral of his addictions.

This resignation is supported by the lyrics of the songs he wrote. He suffered the characteristic highs and crippling lows of all addicts. “I don’t want to feel this way” was a salient anthem. Renfro, a consummate musician since childhood, pleasured himself with strings and vocals. He spent a lot of time singing and playing the guitar, banjo and mandolin. Unlike with Elvis, this musical turn was kept separate from his Hollywood life. But like Elvis, it would be the same machine that laid him low.

Music was a comforting nurse to him in a childhood devoid of guardians and it became his therapy as he grew older. It was a way for him to lick his wounds. Sometimes it was his “hard jazz and needles.” Music became a private world into which he would retreat from the circus outside. Between takes on a movie set, in his trailer, he would pick up his guitar and disappear into strains and riffs. Music came streaming from his guitar with the vigor of a mountain river. He was a natural musician in all facets unlike Elvis who was mostly a vocalist. Who says you have to know how to play guitar or write lyrics to get crowned the King of Rock and Roll? Life is unfair like that.

From the looks of Renfro after 2002, his drugs of choice were no longer the speeders, but the downers. He was consuming a lot of booze which gave him a bloated appearance. That heroin was wreaking havoc with his digestion was obvious. To the trained eye the ravages of his addictions told a tale. The racing white lady of his teens had given way to a comforting warm gun. He was now in the firm clutches of heroin – a smothering embrace that would carry him to a lethal injection at the age of 25.

What one might find as curious is how Heath Ledger, a foreign contemporary of Renfro’s, was canonized as a Hollywood saint by the media and movie industry after his drug-related death in the same month. It begs the question: is it because Ledger was better at not getting caught or is it because Hollywood is a kind of fickle fraternity that not everybody can join?

A popularity contest is always in progress in Hollywood. You can’t put your finger on what it is exactly but one determining factor seems to be that they have an unspoken code that must never be broken: “Don’t get caught.” If you get caught it reflects back on the industry. If you get caught journalism students like this one will write feature stories about it. Implications will be made that Hollywood is a festering cesspool of iniquity that fosters vices and rapes youngsters of their childhood. Don’t get caught Golden Boy – if you do we’ll drop you like a sack of rocks and pretend we never knew you.

Brad Renfro was shunned on Oscar night. Every year the Academy commemorates its dead. Not a peep about his departure. Renfro died a silent, unacknowledged death in the arms of his L.A. Woman. To the industry that sucked his life-force he may as well have been road-kill.

The expired wreckage of his remains was quietly spirited back to Blaine, Tennessee, for burial. Instead of an Oscar for his pains he got a toe-tag. The scarlet seductress that is Hollywood, California, has gotten her last bang out of Brad Renfro.

Like a disgusted paramour, the L.A. Woman was finished with him. “Back you go now boy, no longer golden, to your redneck kinsmen. I got all out of you that I can get. Let’s just pretend we never met.”