Drew Barrymore’s Fractured Fairy Tale
Five minutes into our meeting, Drew Barrymore starts telling me about her watch. It’s bright blue--plastic, of course, since Barrymore is an ardent vegetarian and won’t wear leather--and was a promotional item from the company that makes “Otter Pops.” * “Otter Pops,” she says politely, because Barrymore is the kind of person who will say “bless you” when anyone within earshot sneezes. “They were so big for me in the ‘70s, those long stick-kind of Popsicles that had names--'Alex the Grape,’ ‘Little Orphan Orange.’ I talked about them once on the ‘Today’ show and they sent this to me.” * Barrymore rubs the face of the watch with her sleeve and smiles at the memory of someone, unbidden, sending her a gift. She is big on acts of kindness, rescuing animals--including her three adopted dogs, Flossie, Templeton and Highla--and people, like her once-famous father, John Barrymore Jr., the troubled scion of the legendary Barrymore clan, who until recently lived in his daughter’s guest house. That same free-spiritedness lets her see weird but happy coincidences in her life--such as Anjelica Huston, daughter of famed director John Huston, agreeing to star with
her in the new film “Ever After: A Cinderella Story.” “I got so into the idea of Huston and Barrymore working together, our ancestors looking down on us,” she recalls, “I was like, ‘Let’s go!’ ”
“Ever After,” a post-feminist retelling of the classic fairy tale, is the 29th film Barrymore has made in her 23 years, a career that extends from “E.T.” to “Scream.” What happened between those films--drug addiction, rehab, marriage and divorce, as well as a couple of career comebacks--could fill a book. In fact, Barrymore wrote her autobiography, “Little Girl Lost,” before she was 16. Now she has landed another potentially career-shaping role, playing a New Age Cinderella, and 20th Century Fox is positioning the film, which opens next month, as one of its bigger summer releases--"a sleeper,” predicts the studio’s chairman, Bill Mechanic. Although several actresses had lobbied for the role, Mechanic gave the film the nod only after Barrymore was attached. “It didn’t seem new or interesting until Drew came along,” he says. “She’s edgy, and she’s not a victim.”
“Ever After” is the first film Barrymore will attempt to carry. Hollywood considers the actress reliable but unproven as a box-office draw. Now the industry is watching to see if the latest Barrymore comeback story will have its own fairy-tale ending, if the cherubic blond with the tattoos and tragic past will emerge not just as a survivor but a genuine star.
Even by hollywood standards, Barrymore has lived a much-scrutinized life. The granddaughter of acting legend John Barrymore launched her career at age 6 as the pudding-faced Gertie in “E.T.” Three years later, in 1984, she played the eerily willful girl in Stephen King’s “Firestarter,” becoming arguably the most famous child star since Shirley Temple. But Steven Spielberg’s godchild grew into a teenage 12-step graduate who spent a year in a mental-health facility when she was 13, attempted suicide when she was 14, posed topless for Playboy at 19 and was married--albeit only for three weeks--and divorced by 20. As her autobiography’s much-quoted jacket copy read: “I had my first drink at age nine, began smoking marijuana at ten, and at twelve took up cocaine.”
“Drew had lived Judy Garland’s life by the time she was 12,” says director Joel Schumacher, who has known Barrymore since she was a teenage regular at Helena’s, a hip Hollywood hangout where she accompanied her mother, B-movie actress Jaid Barrymore. “She lived that life,” Schumacher says, “and had gotten to the other side by the time she was 14.”
Seven years ago, after legally wresting control of her career from her mother, who was then her manager, Barrymore began making restitution to Hollywood. Against all expectations, she turned in a riveting performance as Amy Fisher in “The Amy Fisher Story,” a made-for-TV movie. She played more bad girls in the films “Poison Ivy” and “Guncrazy,” but off camera, in numerous articles written about her improbable comeback, Barrymore was all good girl. “I was blacklisted for living that wild period of my life in the public eye,” she told me when I first met her four years ago. “I’d walk into casting offices and get laughed at.”
Now, with her Lolita days behind her, Barrymore is the new darling of the Gen-X crowd. She makes a reported $3 million a film and has her own production company, Flower Films, and a first-look development deal at Fox 2000, a division of 20th Century Fox. She has a house in one of L.A.'s celebrity-cluttered canyons and a new boyfriend--Luke Wilson, her co-star in the upcoming “Home Fries” and is in demand with directors such as Woody Allen and producers, including Miramax President Harvey Weinstein, who tapped her for the 1996 blockbuster thriller “Scream.”
How does she account for such remarkable change? “I kind of understand it,” Barrymore says, ducking her chin and looping an errant strand of dirty blond hair behind her ear. “Being on the right track, working hard, being grateful and professional--it all pays off in the end. Look, I’ve never worn a watch in my life,” she adds, fingering the watch on her wrist again. “In fact, I’ve been really against it, against time, really. I thought people were slaves to it and that I knew something they didn’t. But now I think being on time is really important. Now I’m, like, one of the normal people.”
Well, yes and no. As we talk over lunch at the Argyle Hotel, it is the Friday before the Oscars. Three days later, Barrymore will stick daisies behind her ears, paint glitter on her face, pour dirt in her shoes to keep her “connected to the earth,” and flit Puck-like amid the Armani’d throngs in a sparkly $250 off-the-rack dress.
Toward the end of “Ever After,” there is a scene in which Barrymore confronts her stepmother, played by Huston, demanding some sign of parental love in the wake of her father’s death. It is a pivotal moment in the Cinderella story, the tale of the disenfranchised daughter left in the care of her cold, unfeeling stepmother and stepsisters. Icily rebuffed by Huston, Barrymore is almost unrecognizable in her long, reddish-brown wig, mud-stained gown and grief-contorted face.
“I always thought of Cinderella as so girly, and I wanted to get rid of all those cliches,” says Barrymore when asked about her performance. “I wanted a contemporary sensibility for this fairy-tale world. I really wanted to open up those doors. I [also] wanted to let the men into this beautiful romantic world where they are the cause of so much sorrow and so much happiness.”
Director Andy Tennant, who first worked with Barrymore on “The Amy Fisher Story,” says portraying the loveless orphaned daughter is arguably the actress’ most personal effort to date. “There’s a lot of emotional work going on that Drew keeps a tight lid on,” he says, adding that the mother-daughter scenes with Huston were among the most wrenching to film. As Barrymore plays the role, “Cinderella’s transformation is about her awful childhood and how that led to her blossoming into a successful adult,” Tennant says. “She wanted her to be a hero.”
Barrymore has spent a lot of time and column inches pondering her own childhood. In the past, she has spoken candidly about her strained relationship with her parents, who separated before she was born, and that her friends--a loose circle that includes Adam Sandler, Ed Norton and a casting-agent pal Barrymore lived with for several years--are her surrogate family. But she stops short of suggesting that “Ever After” can be taken as autobiography.
“I used to wonder if it was karma why some kids got beaten on Christmas day and others went on the family vacation, but I never had the ‘dad’ thing, I was never searching for Dad,” she says. “Because I didn’t have a man giving me that male energy, I had to embody it myself.” She pauses for a moment, fiddling with her hair, before plunging on, speaking quickly. “I’m closer to my parents now, but no one in my family is really going to be there for each other. It’s too late. I thought about whether I wanted to be a really resentful person, but it’s just poison and you just have to let it go. I love them and I hope they’re proud of me, but none of us can really tolerate each other. But that’s cool. A lot of families are like that.”
While Barrymore may not be angry at this point in her life, she remains marked with an older-than-her years awareness of life’s capriciousness, what Schumacher calls “the strength that comes when the child has had to become the mature one.”
Laura Ziskin, president of Fox 2000, says that quality is what gives the actress her currency with audiences, particularly the post-baby boom generation. “She’s very young, but she has lived a lot, and that’s evident on camera. There is a whole audience of young women out there hungry to see their experiences on the screen,” she says, adding that Barrymore epitomizes those women. “She’s adorable and cuddly, but she’s not a Pollyanna, and she perceives herself as someone who is an outsider.”
Miramax’s Weinstein has a similar take, calling Barrymore the girl-next-door for the coveted Gen-X crowd. “Whether she is playing a femme fatale or a teenager in a hell,” he says, “audiences identify with her and love her.” Woody Allen, who directed Barrymore in the 1996 film “Everyone Says I Love You,” says she “has the kind of gift that can’t be taught. She’s just naturally interesting, believable and sexy and is capable of a wide range of surprising performances.” As Anjelica Huston puts it, Barrymore “has a wonderful relationship with the camera, not so much as a chameleon, but like Jack Nicholson, she has that star quality.” Says Mechanic: “She’s been through a lot, and that gives her more weight than any actor her age. She’s also one of the few who appeals equally to men and women. In the right thing, she’s mesmerizing.”
Other actresses, such as Jennifer Aniston and Neve Campbell, may be sexier, and Barrymore may not have the buzz that is pushing, say, Minnie Driver. But Barrymore has an old-fashioned Hollywood gravitas. It makes more sense to think of her in terms of Elizabeth Taylor than Gwyneth Paltrow. “She’s a Hollywood baby who beat the odds,” Schumacher says. “She did not crash and burn, and we’ve had too many that have. As self-centered as Hollywood is, we feel responsible, and in our family of filmmakers, we need the survivors like Drew.”
Barrymore has spoken frankly about her distaste for the industry. Her work as a character actor, playing troubled teens and sulky gun-toting Lolitas, reflected that lingering defiance. “I hate the politics of the industry,” she told me four years ago, “that your career choices are determined by how people perceive you.” However ironically, Barrymore has found her niche heading up her production company--even while continuing to play ingenues.
“Somebody said there are a lot of sections of Hollywood,” she says, “and you choose the one where you can work. That’s so true. There are a lot of great women working today, and I’m very impressed with the evolution of the industry. I still don’t get caught up in certain aspects of it--like I don’t show up at every public function--but I love the business side of it. It’s why I formed my company, because I understand it can go away, and you need to build your own foundation.”
That’s a startling bit of savvy coming from an actress who is still more often quoted about butterfly tattoos and Hollywood’s drug use than the weekend grosses. In fact, though, in an afternoon’s conversation, Barrymore talks with equal enthusiasm about her film company, her charity work promoting safe sex on college campuses--"Right now we categorically live in an age where if you don’t wear a condom you will probably die"--and her passion for animals, glitter, drive-through car washes and containers of all kinds--cups and bowls, Ziploc bags, even the new CD wallet she has stuffed in her bag. “I try not to get too obsessive about everything having its place, but I love containers,” she says, sounding like Martha Stewart as a Valley Girl. “I’m a Tupperware freak. And Ziploc bags? Oh, my God, I don’t know what I would do without them. All the different sizes? You need them. Corn on the cob, or a sandwich? They all need a different size bag.”
Huston calls it part of “Drew’s dichotomy,” where one minute she’s off in the ozone being very lyrical and metaphysical and talking about butterflies, and then suddenly she gets very rooted and logical. “It’s a kind of youthful energy that either gets subverted into rebellion or it becomes creative,” Huston says. “And Drew has reached that point where she’s channeling it into her career.”
Weinstein agrees, crediting Barrymore with choosing to play a character who is killed off in the first few minutes of “Scream.” “Audiences may love her because they think her problems are their problems,” he says, “But make no mistake, she’s a very disciplined actress who has very savvy producing instincts.”
It seems that Barrymore has found a way to control her life after years of being out of control. The actress who turned toward David Letterman on his show one night and flashed her breasts is now revealing herself as tougher stuff. “Absolutely,” says Barrymore, when the control theory is floated. “I like being free, but you can only be that way if you are disciplined. Acting is a very strange thing, and I understand why we feel like emotional freaks sometimes, but you can’t let it all go.”
It is in her acting that Barrymore tests the limits of that control. Whether she is playing Cinderella, or a pregnant single woman as she does in the upcoming “Home Fries,” or an ambitious copy editor/reporter in the movie she is currently filming, “Never Been Kissed,” she plumbs her emotions in the service of others. “I feel the genetic instinct to act for sure. I think if I have any ability, it’s to embody other people. I can always tell when I’m acting as opposed to playing the other person just being herself. It’s why I never want to look the same from one movie to the next, because I want to play a range, physically and emotionally. But the one thing I’ve learned is that I’ve been through plenty of pain and anguish and anger already; all I have to do is feel it.”
Perhaps no role will tap Barrymore’s emotional reservoir more than that of Teena Brandon, the Nebraska cross-dresser who was murdered in 1993 after years of passing herself off as a man. Barrymore says she has an abiding interest in androgyny and tentatively plans to shoot the film next year, with herself in the lead role. “I’ve been studying her for years,” she says. “I know it’s a dark story, this woman who had no money for a sex-change operation but became a guy. But everything she did, she did for others. And I like people who embody the yin and the yang. Because I didn’t have the typical mom, dad, brother and sister, I’m kind of that way. I like people with faults; it reminds me they’re human. I get nervous being around ultra-perfect or hip people. It makes me think that I’m too much of a bizarro to be in their world.”
The implication is clear. Despite her new enthusiasm for Hollywood, she remains an outsider. It’s one reason why, after a lifetime of being judged, Barrymore now seems intent on leading her life beyond the reach of headlines. After years of club-hopping and cavorting in the public eye, she now lives alone, refuses to be photographed at her house and spends her days either on a movie set or dutifully at her desk at her company’s West Hollywood offices. She has even kept her relationship with Luke Wilson out of the limelight.
“Luke is a very private person, and I’ve learned a lot from him that way. I’m not the girl who is trying to be a certain way to please her man--that would drive me nuts--but I see how confident he is, and I want to embody that positiveness. So I used to have people around me, but now I’m a loner girl.” Without mentioning marriage, Barrymore continues. “I feel like my biological clock is ticking in a crazy way. I want a family so much because I’ve always longed to have one, and I think I could definitely have, like, eight kids. But right now, I like living alone. There is so much going on in my life that I just love sitting on the couch doing nothing, eating fatty foods in comfy clothes and nobody’s watching you and you’re not self-conscious. You can spread out and be you. Everyone needs that balance.”
Balance is what she’s after these days. But the disjointedness of her conversation suggests that she is still finding her way. “I think things in moderation are really healthy,” she says, adding that after years of substance abuse, she can now “go three weeks without smoking, and then one night I’ll have a glass of wine and a smoke and I love that. You can be obsessive-compulsive about things like exercise, which is healthier than some obsessions. But I’d rather just be free of that.”
How does she square her attitudes with Hollywood’s renewed drug use? Barrymore chooses her words carefully. “I’ve been asked a lot about that, and it’s a tricky dichotomy when you’re an actor, because you’re so recognizable, your time off is not really ‘off.’ So actors who want to go party a little bit, people think they’re a f- - -up, which is unfair, especially when most people pointing the finger are doing the exact same thing themselves.”
She continues: “I’ve never done heroin or acid, and, personally, they just seem like death to me, like you’re dancing with the grim reaper. I guess some people find that appealing. I’m not going to sit here and say they’re bad people. The only time I get upset is when it affects their job. It’s not cool to screw up your professional life. I just want people to be happy and in as much control of their life as possible.
“Look,” Barrymore says, “I’m obsessed about things, too. I’m obsessed with work and with love and with growth, but I think there are many ways to find them without being self-destructive. I think anyone can do anything as long as they keep focused and try to be a good person.”
More than two hours has passed, and Barrymore needs to head off for some pre-Oscar pampering--a massage at a nearby day spa. Remarkably, she has never had one and is clearly tense about the upcoming encounter. “If I don’t like it, I’m just going to leave,” she says. “I’m just going to walk there,” she says, explaining that she is without a car “because I’m the worst driver.”
When I suggest that I can drop her off, Barrymore regards the offer with wary relief. In the car, she shrinks to her side and distracts herself by rummaging through her bag, first for her CD holder, which she holds up for me to see, and, finally, a rubber band. “Thank God,” she says anchoring her hair in a stubby ponytail. “I feel so much better now.”
A bus advertising “The Late Show with David Letterman” catches her eye. “Dave,” she says absently. “You gotta love him. What other man is there for you every night?”
When we pull up outside the salon, Barrymore hesitates for a second. In her 23 years, she has seen and conquered so much, but the idea of a massage seems to paralyze her. Letterman, the gift of her Otter Pops watch, so much pop culture she finds comforting. But not human contact. “It’s just the idea of being touched,” she admits, with a nervous glance out the window. And again, “If I don’t like it, I’m leaving.”
Then she gets out of the car and leans down for a final word. “There are still so many places I walk into that I feel like an alien,” she says. “Just when I think I’m OK and fine, I find that I’m not.” Closing the door, she turns to leave, looking smaller now but with a brave stride that not only disputes what she’s just said, but defies it.