I debated for a long time whether I was comfortable with putting this post in the Early Gay Crushes section. He was, no doubt, an early crush of mine, but the fact that he died earlier this year makes the thing feel a little weird. At the same time a classic pretty boy and an obviously troubled soul, his life and career was tragically cut short by an overdose this last January. He made himself a name in such films as The Client, Apt Pupil and Bully.
He demanded my attention with his lead role in The Client (1994), which I saw a couple of years later, when I was twelve or thirteen years old. I was fascinated with it not only because it was one of very few John Grisham adaptations actually worth seeing, but also because I though he there was something attractive about the stubbornness and bravery that his character mustered. I haven’t seen it in many years now, but that’s probably just as well. Over the years I’ve developed a very short fuse for this kind of procedural thrillers, so maybe it’s a good thing that I chose to remember it as the reasonably suspenseful movie I watched in my early teens, instead of burdening it with the scepticism that experience unavoidably triggers. Brad had managed the most important thing; to get on my radar.
That said, I didn’t expect to see him in another movie. I missed Apt Pupil, and this was well before my gayness had instructed me to catch a movie because of the cuteness of its actors (it’s a little sad to say this, but when it comes to my critical judgment, I probably was harsher when I first discovered the art of film some twelve years ago than I am now. That’s not to say that I can watch anything, but my ability to tolerate bad movies, or to choose movies for shallow reasons, has greatly increased over the last couple of years). Had Brad Renfro still been alive, and Apt Pupil had been released today, I cannot rule out that I would have gone to see it.
Then imagine my surprise when his name came up in the opening credits in Larry Clark’s Bully (2001). And if his looks in his younger years carried a slight resemblance (hey, I said slight!) to the young man we’ve later come to know as Alex Pettyfer, by now he had matured into a more mature, buffed up guy. I fell for him immediately, and he was assisted by the equally attractive Nick Stahl (who went on to do Terminator 3 and Carnivale). In hindsight however, it’s tempting to interpret his role in Bully as some kind of a bad omen. Renfro portrays Marty Pucci as a guy who has serious problems with setting up boundaries for his own behavior, and who as a result drifts into a daze of drugs and violence. I wouldn’t endorse such a biographical reading of course, not least because, in addition to being simplistic, it would impose onto the story facts about Renfro’s own life that was not known at the time. But just like it’s hard to separate Heath Ledger, the myth, from Heath Ledger the actor, in The Dark Knight, it’s sometimes hard with Brad Renfro.
Bully would come to be high point in Renfro’s short career. The story of how Marty ultimately decides to get back at his abusive best friend Bobby (Stahl), is disturbing on many levels. Again it feels weird to admit, not only because he is no longer with us, but also because of the reputation that Larry Clark’s movies are infested with, but part of the reason why I retained my crush on Brad through this movie, was due to Clark’s characteristic tendency to fetishize his young actors. As a result you get to see a lot of attractive young people and a lot of skin, but whether that pleases you or not, you end up feeling bad about it. I don’t if that’s Clark’s intention, or whether it simply is a product of me succumbing to the (fairly) common view – even among people who appreciate his movies – that Clark at times acts as a pornographer in an artist’s clothing. Personally, I believe the truth lies somewhere between the two poles. I’m certainly not a prude when it comes to depicting sex and nudity in movies, but with Clark I sometimes end up feeling manipulated. This holds true for all his movies, Kids, Bully, Ken Park and Wassup Rockers. I might revisit the Clark universe in a future post.
So my crush on Brad Renfro ended prematurely. I’m only grateful he took time prove that he was able to be more than just a nice body or a pretty face. The sad thing of course is that his best work was still ahead of him.