Film Studies: Drew and Natalie: to live and die in LA

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The Independent Culture

Today is Drew Barrymore's birthday; she is 29; she has just opened in her 50th film, 50 First Dates; and she is still here. The last point is worth making because, by the time she was 12, she was a child star seriously messed up on booze and cocaine. There was a lengthy rehab period, along with plenty of tabloid predictions: fasten your seat belts, here comes the wildest of all the Barrymores.

That was a reference to a show business family famous for burning the candle at both ends. Her father, John Drew Barrymore (born in 1929 and still alive), had a brief acting career and then so much trouble that he became a recluse living in the desert. Her aunt, Diana Barrymore, was dead at 38, an actress briefly and author of an autobiography, Too Much, Too Soon. And her grandfather, the great one, John Barrymore (1882-1942), was sometimes regarded as the finest actor of his age, and sometimes the most pathetic lush.

If you had only the above paragraph to go on, and I told you I was going to show you a photograph of Drew Barrymore, you might expect something dark, haunted, wary and nervous (something like Natalie Wood?). So it's a pleasure to remind you that not only is Drew Barrymore a sunny blonde with a helpless smile, but one of the happiest looking 29-year-olds around. Why not - she works all the time. For Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, she took away $14m - and while you could make a case for that sum (granted, to that work) being directly in line with "too much, too soon", still there are a lot of ways of staying cheerful on $14m. Far better than that, Drew Barrymore continues to broaden her range as an actress and a comedienne, and she is unflagging in her efforts as a producer. That's to say, someone who thinks of subjects for films and gets them made. In the last few years, she has had a producer credit on Never Been Kissed, Donnie Darko, the two Charlie's Angels films, Duplex and the forthcoming A Confederacy of Dunces, which is from one of those books that everyone said could never be filmed.

I don't think Drew Barrymore got any advantages apart from those she earned. Even now, she will admit in interview that she can only be with her father and mother for short periods (as in being exposed to an open flame).

That means they are dangerous, and she is combustible. Whatever self-destructive genes there may be left in the line, Drew Barrymore knew early (she was Gertie in ET when she was six) that fame, adulation and money could drive her out of her mind. So she's worked at stability and surviving and getting herself fireproofed. Yet the nicest thing of all about her is that one glance from her eyes lets you know she's still a wild thing.

That wildness has always been intensely appealing in film faces. One of the reasons we go to the movies is to let some character's outburst get rid of our pent-up energies. Of course, that's also another pressure on the actress - that awareness that we are urging her to the brink of explosion, orgasm, madness, going too far. With the secondary certainty that if she does go too far we will probably be among the first to be disapproving, or to send Lolita to a convent.

These thoughts occur because I have just been reading Gavin Lambert's excellent new biography of Natalie Wood. When Wood died in 1981 - she was drowned in a mysterious yachting accident, despite her lifelong dread of dark waters - she was 43, pretty well past her best, but an authentic movie star (Rebel Without a Cause, Splendor in the Grass, West Side Story, Gypsy, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice).

Lambert knew Wood quite well (she played the lead in the movie adaptation of one of his novels, Inside Daisy Clover). That allows not just uncommon insight but a willingness on the part of people close to Wood to talk to him. Lambert's fondness has one problem, I think: he never quite sees how much a Hollywood actress needs to be not just wild, but so selfish, so arrogant, so much of a pain in the neck, to survive, or to perish. There's the fine line. I think you can read about Natalie Wood and know that her own desperate need for happiness was making her a hostage to fortune. Whereas, with Drew Barrymore, there is some underlying sense that, by the age of 15, this woman had learned fatalism, comedy and the unblinking farce of acting. Those were the attributes people admired in the work of her grandfather.

If only the great man could have seen her.