Film Studies: The curse of the Barrymores and its latest victim

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This news hardly made the press in Britain, but on 1 December the death was announced, in Los Angeles, of John Drew Barrymore. Those are famous names, yet I doubt that one person in a thousand knew that this man existed, or that he was 72. He was the ghost in one of America's most illustrious family trees, the father of Drew Barrymore, one of the most popular actresses and producers of our day. More or less everyone knows Drew, and has done ever since her adorable child in E.T. We know that Drew was drug-dependent in her early teens. We understand that she was a wreck, and we rejoice for the way she put her life back together again.

But John Drew Barrymore was the son of someone more famous than Drew in his day. I am talking about John Barrymore (1882-1942), who was celebrated all over the world in the early Twenties for his Richard III and Hamlet. The leading critic of the time, John Mason Brown, said of Barrymore's Hamlet, "Although I have sat before many Hamlets, some better read and more solidly conceived, John Barrymore, with his slim, proud figure, the lean Russian wolfhound aquilinity of his profile, and the princely beauty of his full face, continues for me to be the embodiment of the Dane. His Hamlet had a withering wit. It had scorn at its command; passion, too. Though undisciplined, it crackled with the lightning of personality."

The whole life is there: the looks - he was called the Great Profile; the brilliance in classical roles; and "undisciplined". Which was putting it mildly. For with all his talent, John Barrymore was one of the great reprobates, a ceaseless womaniser and a spectacular drunk. He made films at his peak: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Sherlock Holmes; Ahab in Moby Dick; Don Juan. But we know Barrymore best today as the profile that had gone puffy, as the great actor baked as ham, as a very funny, self-destructive man - his classic performance in that vein is as Oscar Jaffe, opposite Carole Lombard, in Howard Hawks' glorious Twentieth Century.

John was also kid brother to two other great players: Lionel (1878-1954), who was so crippled by arthritis that he ended up acting in a wheelchair. As such, you may know him as the villain Potter in It's a Wonderful Life. Their sister, Ethel (1879-1954), was a beautiful stage star who became a lovely, grumpy old lady in films like Portrait of Jennie, The Spiral Staircase and None But the Lonely Heart (where she won an Oscar playing Cary Grant's mother). They were known as the royal family of Broadway, and there are rare delights such as the film Rasputin and the Empress, where John and Ethel are Prince Youssoupoff and the Tsarina, and Lionel was Rasputin.

Now imagine that you are John Blythe Barrymore Jr, later known as John Drew Barrymore, born in Los Angeles in 1932, the son of the Great Profile (50 already) and Dolores Costello, a child star originally who had played with John in The Sea Beast (1926). Their marriage barely lasted three years, and Dolores may be most famous for her tragic performance as Isabel in Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (a famous commercial disaster).

John Jr, a very good-looking boy, had acting going back several generations in his family. He may have reasoned sometimes that, if any child of his was going to succeed in show business, then on the law of averages he was doomed. Yet what else could he do? He had a warning: his half-sister, Diana, the child of an earlier marriage of John's, was dead at 39, an actress in a few pictures, but best known as author of a book, Too Much, Too Soon, that recounted her own unhappy times with men, divorce, booze and suicide attempts.

The boy was sent to St John's Military Academy, and he hardly ever saw the father who died when he was 10. But in the early Fifties, on the strength of his looks and his name, he got a few film parts, most notably the unruly teenager in The Big Night, the last film made by Joseph Losey before he had to leave America because of the black list. This is not one of Losey's better films, yet the sad truth was that Barrymore looked like a loser.

He married an actress, Cara Williams, seven years older than he was, and he got into trouble because of violent quarrels with her. He was in jail a number of times for driving offences and alcoholism, and his own union, Actors' Equity, suspended him. It was in one of his comebacks that he took on the name, John Drew Barrymore, and he worked in America for a few years but then in Europe: High School Confidential, Night of the Quarter Moon, The Night They Killed Rasputin, where he played Prince Youssoupoff and Edmund Purdom was Rasputin (in those days, being in a picture with Purdom was the kiss of death).

You could say that the young Barrymore never got the right chance, or that the vein of talent had run thin. Some said he was unstable and dangerous, to himself and others. Not long after Losey arrived in England, in exile, Barrymore turned up too, inexplicably flush with cash, just hanging around. Perhaps it was paranoia, but Losey always reckoned that Barrymore was being paid by the FBI to gather evidence against his recent director. It sounds like material for a very promising film noir; indeed, it sounds so much more interesting than any of the pictures John Barrymore Jr ever made. In time, he was a parent that the very young Drew learned she had to put out of her life if she was going to have a chance of surviving.

Imagine that wreck living 72 years. Imagine him always being introduced as "John Barrymore". Picture the anguish at all the snide jokes. It is an unkind world for the untalented burdened by immense family traditions. Later in life, it is said, Barrymore retreated and went to live in the desert outside Los Angeles. Was that to escape being introduced and recognised? Or was it in the desert that a failure could still dream of his own life as a prince?

There are exceptions, of course: we have three generations of Hustons, all talented, and fairly happy. We have all those flowers on the spreading tree called Redgrave. Sofia Coppola has come to rich life just as her father begins to settle for making wine. But being related to a great star is often a ghost's life. The list of accidental death, crack-up and suicide in the children of the great is one of those Hollywood stories told in hushed voices. Deserts are for people who have seen through the sham and the traps of society and fame. I'm sure that many who had known John Barrymore Jr read his brief obituary and marvelled that he was still alive as lately as the day before.