Drew Barrymore: A child of our time

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The Independent Online

It's as easy to make fun of Drew Barrymore as it is to hold her up as a warning figure. And if you're in that sort of gloomy, spoilsport mood, you'll find no witness more eloquent or damning than Ms Barrymore herself. Here she is, for instance, in Movieline magazine, at the world-weary age of 17, recalling her own hard times: "I walked into that audition and the casting director just sat there laughing. He said, 'I can't believe you have the balls to walk into this audition, Little Miss Drug Addict. Right, like we're going to give you this job.' I was blacklisted, big time. I had two, three years of casting directors telling me I'd never work again in this town.

It's as easy to make fun of Drew Barrymore as it is to hold her up as a warning figure. And if you're in that sort of gloomy, spoilsport mood, you'll find no witness more eloquent or damning than Ms Barrymore herself. Here she is, for instance, in Movieline magazine, at the world-weary age of 17, recalling her own hard times: "I walked into that audition and the casting director just sat there laughing. He said, 'I can't believe you have the balls to walk into this audition, Little Miss Drug Addict. Right, like we're going to give you this job.' I was blacklisted, big time. I had two, three years of casting directors telling me I'd never work again in this town.

"Even after I'd do a good audition, they copped an attitude, like, 'Well, you're not going to get this film, but you're not as bad as we thought you were gonna be.' That shit only made me angrier, made me put that much more into my work. But I'm a little termite. You cannot get rid of me. I am a person without pride, someone who will do what it takes to get a film. I swore to all those people who made me eat it: some day, you'll want me. And, through pure ambition, I showed those sons of bitches that I can do it. Success is the best revenge in the world. And I'm back."

And now, she's back again, at 25, with Charlie's Angels, which may be one of the worst films she has ever made. Still, it did $75m in two weeks at the box office. So all that the business will notice is Drew's ability to turn disaster into something fresh, fragrant and fun. It's the story of her lurid life. And don't expect her to shed a tear if the movie's awful - or drop the blame on anyone. She's a pro, and she does pictures the way a girl goes out on a date. Some are better than others, but it's always nice to be asked.

No one is going to give you a serious argument that she's anything more than cute, funny, leggy, blonde and American. But if you're 60, don't forget that she's been around for nearly half your lifetime. There's no question now as to whether she is going to fade away. Is Kleenex or Chanel No 5 or French vanilla with hot fudge going to go away? Are foxy girls going out of style? Look: she isn't old, beat-up, raddled, demented or finished yet, even after her life, and, at 25, she's got another 15 years at this game, at least. If you're 60, the chances are she'll be at your funeral, flirting with the gravediggers and showing them her butterfly tattoos.

Don't be deceived by the easy-going air. The little girl with the angelic naughty air and the older-sibling swear-words - Gertie in E.T. - has seen more life than most of us could tolerate. She ran her own robust system as close to the edge as possible. A few years later, at the age of 10, she was drunk in public, from champagne. A year later, she was seriously into pot - you know what 11-year-olds are like with crazes. At 13, she was on coke; and at 14, she tried to kill herself. "What were her parents thinking and doing?" you're going to ask. Well, a lot of the time, her mother was leading the way. Her father was a zombie, barefoot, living in desert places, so blasted by drugs that people said he was communing with nature. "There you are," the scolds and the critics say - "the results of an appalling upbringing." Then you look at it another way and you have to argue that Drew Barrymore has survived and kept her humour and even what you can call talent because of some extraordinary genes.

For people of Drew's age and sparse education (she was otherwise occupied), the name Barrymore means very little now - apart from being vaguely cool and stylish. But the fact is that in certain poses and photographs, the Drew Barrymore of the past few years has been the spitting image of a man she never knew. He was widely acknowledged as the greatest actor in America, one of the most handsome of men and everyone's pick as the most self-destructive guy they'd ever met. Drew Barrymore is the granddaughter of John Barrymore.

There were two Barrymore brothers, John and Lionel, and they were the sons of famous actors going back to the 19th century. John (1882-1942) was the greatest Hamlet anyone recalled in the early 1920s. He turned, helplessly, to the movies and became notorious as a great actor pickled in booze. Still, he made a masterpiece out of the theatrical impresario in the film of Twentieth Century (1934), and in the chaos of his later years he showed a superb, fatalistic humour that some have noted in Drew.

Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954) was far less handsome but just as famous, and in his later years (when confined to a wheelchair) he was a character actor in such notable movies as Duel in the Sun, It's a Wonderful Life and Key Largo.

John was drawn to every excess in the way of drink, women and disorder. But one of his wives was the actress Dolores Costello, who plays the mother in Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which is enough to prove her great ability. Together, she and John had a son, John Drew Barrymore, or John Barrymore Jr, who was born in 1932.

In his youth, John Jr was as handsome as his father, and as spoilt by drink and unstable temper. He had a brief movie career that includes a good performance in Joseph Losey's The Big Night (1951). But drug troubles led to withdrawal into a kind of hippie twilight in which he met a woman named Ildiko, or Jade. Before they split up, a daughter, Drew, was born (22 February 1975), and at different times that daughter has been very distant from both parents.

Not always distant enough, however: the father was violent to her; the mother became not just her manager, but an accomplice in drink and drugs. The best account of those very troubled years is to be found in Drew Barrymore's own book, Little Girl Lost, published when she was 14 and an acutely forlorn record of her life so far. It is also the clearest testament to the courage and will-power in a young woman who loves to seem flaky, provocative and dangerous.

I'm not trying to tell you that Drew Barrymore is yet a great actress - or even an actress as her grandmother would have understood the term. Rather, she's an image, a presence, a phenomenon, if you like. But she's not as intense as Julia Roberts; and I don't think she's as intelligent an actress as, say, Winona Ryder - to whom she has lost many parts. She's not as threatening as Angelina Jolie; she's not as adroit a comedienne as Reese Witherspoon; she has nothing like the range of Cate Blanchett or Kate Winslet.

Yet all those women, I fancy, would give a nod to Drew Barrymore, not just as a driver on the fast track and a survivor, but as someone whose attitude to the movies is impeccable and unrattled.

Today, Barrymore has her own production company and a starting salary pushing $5m. She knows how lucky she is, but she doesn't let the power and the opportunity ever get in the way of having a good time. And she's absolutely artless about revealing the simple mind of a girl who never had much schooling.

In another Movieline interview (she has been its cover-girl four times, a sign of just how close she is to LA's model), she blurted out a landslide of poems and thoughts of serene banality: "These are all the words I love. Hope and daisies, the sun, prayer, laughter, strength, nature, kissing, the rain, cigarettes, feelings, spirituality, the sky, bubbles, pot, religion, fire, water, holding hands [I am not making this up], praying, searching, finding. And this poem: 'Love is... the sunshine, someone's hand to hold, the life that keeps us warm, the arrow that points us all in the right direction, ice-cream, knowledge, strength, something or someone to cherish, good friends, hope - because we all hope to be loved. Love is what we all hope to give and receive. Love is good music, laughter, peace, comfort, fulfilment when you're in need.' "

If that stuns you to the point where you can't understand why I or anyone might expect you to read on, it could be that you don't quite grasp the shallow sincerity that can make a pretty good actress and a happy-go-lucky American.

There is another Drew: the one who teases an interviewer about whether or not she has had a ring inserted in her most private part; the one who married a British bar-owner for a whole month; and the one who once saluted the talk-show host David Letterman's birthday by jumping up on his table, shedding her sweater and doing a fabulous, impromptu dance that reminded us all how superficial Californian girls can have breasts for eternity. And be happy enough about having them to need to show them. She really meant it as a gift, for Dave and America.

Then there's the work: she's been a pretty effective sexpot in Poison Ivy (1992), where she had steamy scenes with Tom Skerritt and Sara Gilbert; she was plain good as an abused girl in Guncrazy (1992); she was Sugar in Batman Forever (1995); she was good again playing a touch crazy in Mad Love (1995); she sang innocently for Woody Allen in Everyone Says I Love You (1996); she worked as well with Adam Sandler in The Wedding Singer (1997) as with Anjelica Huston in Ever After (1998); she was one of a bunch of tomboy cowgirls in Bad Girls (1994). I'm not sure that any of her adult roles was as brilliant as Gertie in E.T. But I'm not really sure that she is, unequivocally, adult.

Now, there are still levels of life in which to wonder if a 25-year-old is adult yet would be a mark of criticism or disgrace. But they are shrinking - if it's any comfort, or warning. And Drew Barrymore, it seems to me, is one of those screen performers who is so much an epitome of youth (and so alien to maturity, responsibility etc) that the etc can seem like useless baggage. I don't like believing that, and I trust you don't either. At the same time, I can't help liking Drew Barrymore - her nerve, her guts, her grin, her genes, the way she holds the light.

When I gave you her potted history, I left out one important figure - her great-aunt, Ethel Barrymore (1879-1959), the sister of John and Lionel. She was a star and a beauty in her day, but she's best known now as the old lady, the spirit of kindness, in movies from the Forties and Fifties - None But the Lonely Heart (in which she won an Oscar as Cary Grant's mother); Portrait of Jennie; and Young at Heart. She was in her seventies then, no longer pretty, but her eyes filled with sympathy and understanding.

God knows whether Drew Barrymore will live that long without going crazy. Or whether there will be movies by the time she is 70 - let alone ones that need to evoke kindness. But I think the reason I like her is that, despite all that has happened to her (and not happened), Drew is warmly disposed toward the world. She is not Katharine Hepburn, or Susan Sontag, let alone Joan of Arc (a role she was once eager to play). But she wants the best; and she wants it to be fun. And if that means taking off her sweater now and then, well, she has breasts that match her smile. Looking at her - it's like holding hands with someone.

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