I was in the middle of writing Heath Ledger’s obit when I realized that Brad Renfro died last week. Somehow, I had missed the news of Renfro’s death. Two of my teenage crushes gone in one fell swoop. Bizarrely, I had their pictures tacked up side-by-side on my closet door at one point.
My bedroom in Charlotte went through many changes, but I can still picture certain details clearly: the garland of lights woven around the windows, the enormous Beatles poster, the incense sticks in the green glow of the alarm clock radio on top of the new-yet-rickety dresser, and, at one point, two of the Western world’s most gifted actors staring down onto my rather un-fancy little bed. Neither one smiling.
Renfro’s career was more uneven than Ledger’s. He was the consummate child star, making a big splash early (in “The Client”) and proceeding to lose momentum. He still had his moments, though; by refusing to waste himself on bloated big-star vehicles, he quietly built up an impressive resume. Meanwhile, he had his run-ins with the law, his drug arrests, illustrating once again the toll of early fame on what seemed to be a delicately calibrated psyche. On screen he had a slightly feral, roughhewn, solid presence. Outwardly, he fit the mold of one of those typical Southern boys you might see zipping down your street in a muscle car, but his eyes sometimes looked like the eyes of an old man. A casual acquaintance of mine who hails from Knoxville, Renfro’s hometown, told me he had a “reputation.” He was raised by his grandma. Parts of his eulogy, as written by his uncle, made their way online – and these were some of the simplest, and most heartfelt words on a family member dying young that I’ve ever read.
At times like these, common sense tells us that thousands of people die all over the world, unsung and unremembered. Many die deaths that could easily have been prevented but were not, due to malnutrition, lack of basic sanitation, senseless violence, and so on. A couple of good-looking celebrities who seemingly had it all dominate the headlines instead, and there is no justice in this.
However, is there anything really “sensible” in the way in which we respond to actors? Not really. The medium in which they work in, and the culture that surrounds them, precludes all that. People like Renfro, like Ledger, capture the imagination, not our logic, not even our sense of aforementioned justice. A good actor, and both Renfro and Ledger were damn good, creates a sense of primal resonance.
To inhabit a character is, after all, to inhabit the audience.
Celebrity is the product of this strange chemical reaction between viewer and performer. Celebrity has the deceptive aura of immortality, hence the reason why celebrity deaths, the deaths of young celebrities in particular, are visceral and shocking. Even Paris Hilton, “the talent-free zone” as some of my friends call her, plays a certain kind of role that furthers her carnival-esque appeal. If Paris, God forbid, died tomorrow – people who never knew her, people who readily mocked her, would still lower their heads for a moment. Not out of any sense of real affinity, but simply because she was out there, she was visible, and then, extinguished. Passed through the mortal coils. Up to God.
It’s telling that what I think about when I see images of Renfro and Ledger – besides the obvious thoughts concerning their families – is me. I think of the girl that I was, the girl who liked pictures of rough-looking boys, who lay on her stomach and read Vogue and Vanity Fair in the evenings after school, who thought that youth in all its stupidity and glory and summer sweat and chipped blue nailpolish couldn’t possibly end. The world is a little different now – sharper, clearer, and sadder.
“Goodbye stranger, it’s been nice, hope you find your paradise…”
And now, because the gloom and doom and thoughts on the transience of existence are really beginning to freak me out, behold, Brazilian boys dancing in their underwear: