How Drew Barrymore Became the True Superhero of Child Stars

As the 40th anniversary of ET: The Extra Terrestrial passes by, the film’s biggest star, Drew Barrymore, stands proud as a survivor of the often brutal Hollywood child star system. Few people thought she’d make it this far following a childhood riddled with drugs and scandal, but Drew has been written off countless times without seeming to notice that her career has apparently ended: She continues to entertain and delight audiences, an oblivious True Superhero whose ability to keep working throughout hardships is an inspiration to millions.  

School or Studio 54?

Drew was born in 1975 in California, into an acting dynasty; the Barrymores had been famous actors stretching back to the 19th century. Drew’s father, John Drew Barrymore, had a successful acting career behind him, as well as three ex-wives and numerous charges for drug possession. His father - Drew’s grandfather, John Barrymore - was widely considered to be the greatest actor of his generation, but both John and John Drew suffered from crippling alcoholism. Drew’s parents split up soon after she was born, and her father was largely absent from her life from that point onwards.

How Drew Barrymore Became the True Superhero of Child Stars

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As the 40th anniversary of ET: The Extra Terrestrial passes by, the film’s biggest star, Drew Barrymore, stands proud as a survivor of the often brutal Hollywood child star system. Few people thought she’d make it this far following a childhood riddled with drugs and scandal, but Drew has been written off countless times without seeming to notice that her career has apparently ended: She continues to entertain and delight audiences, an oblivious True Superhero whose ability to keep working throughout hardships is an inspiration to millions.  

School or Studio 54?

Drew was born in 1975 in California, into an acting dynasty; the Barrymores had been famous actors stretching back to the 19th century. Drew’s father, John Drew Barrymore, had a successful acting career behind him, as well as three ex-wives and numerous charges for drug possession. His father - Drew’s grandfather, John Barrymore - was widely considered to be the greatest actor of his generation, but both John and John Drew suffered from crippling alcoholism. Drew’s parents split up soon after she was born, and her father was largely absent from her life from that point onwards.

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Drew’s connections as a member of the Barrymore dynasty had meant that she started acting very early, with her first cinema appearance coming in Ken Russell’s 1980’s body horror film Altered States.  Her next role would be one of the biggest of the decade, playing Gertie in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. It catapulted her to global fame, and also introduced her to Stephen Spielberg, who would eventually become her godfather and she would come to describe as a father figure. 

A 10 year old Drew partying with Billy Idol at Studio 54

Famously, Drew was not getting much guidance from her mother, either. Following the success of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Drew was frequently seen with her mother at notorious New York nightclub Studio 54. She would later describe the proposition put to her by her mother: “do you want to go to school and be bullied, or do you want to go to Studio 54?” Drew claimed not to enjoy the company of other children, and so opted for nightclubs, going out with her mother and her mother’s friends five nights a week from the age of eight years old onwards. Eventually, she was unable to keep pace with the adults, and at the age of 13 she was committed to rehab by her mother. The rehab center suggested that Drew’s best option might be emancipation from her mother, and she undertook that drastic action at the age of 14, divorcing her mother and being legally declared an adult.

Playing against type

Drew had been through a lot in a very short space of time, and almost all of it had been headline tabloid news. Despite still being a child - albeit an emancipated one - her reputation among Hollywood casting agencies had taken an enormous knock and for several years she found work impossible to come by. As she would later say, “I was never unprofessional, but i was on a hiatus from being employable… to have such a big career at such a young age, then nothing for years – people going, you’re an unemployable disaster – that’s a tough trip to have by the time you’re 14. To have access to so many things, then to nothing.” Remarkably, Drew did not let this phase her. She settled down into a routine, living her own life, and successfully recovered from the traumatic experiences of her childhood. As time passed, offers of work started to come back in. By the time she was 17 she was back in lead roles, playing the title character in the 1992 thriller Poison Ivy, and over the course of the next few years she appeared in a wide variety of major movies, including Batman Forever,  The Wedding Singer, and her iconic role as Casey Becker in Scream. 

Barrymore in Scream

The most remarkable part of Drew’s career as a young adult  was that she was clearly having an enormous amount of fun, something which did not fit the troubled child star archetype that she was expected to play. Perhaps the most extreme example of this came about in 1995, when a 20 year old Barrymore appeared on the David Letterman show to promote Batman Forever, and helped to celebrate the host’s birthday by giving him a table dance and flashing her breasts at him. She later described this as a “silly, impromptu thing”, and has no regrets over the incident, but it did lead her to reflect on her public persona and seek to change the way she was being perceived, not least because she had little interest in conforming to type, and was also starting to feel tired of being typecast as bad girl characters. To counteract this, she founded her own production company, Flower Films, and promptly delivered three blockbuster hit films that could not have been more different; 1999’s smash hit romcom Never Been Kissed, 2000’s action adventure Charlie’s Angels, and 2001’s brooding and convoluted Donnie Darko. Drew’s own preferred path for her future career was marked out by her decision to star in just one of these movies, Never Been Kissed’s cutesy romcom. 

Gertie‘s still giving

Barrymore’s encounter with Letterman has shaped much of her future career, and may vene be responsible for her current engagement as the remarkably successful host of The Drew Barrymore Show; she’s even had Letterman as a guest on her show to relive - or at least rewatch - their previous encounter in 1995. Drew’s new role as a chat show host seems to be one she’s well qualified for, and she has attracted huge numbers of new fans through social media who enjoy her idiosyncratic approach to daytime television. 

Drew interviewing her 7 year old self as a promo for The Drew Barrymore Show

Elsewhere, she’s been careful to give back, and while it’s no surprise that someone who experienced such a tumultuous childhood should be involved in a wide number of children’s charities, Drew’s commitment to these causes both at home and abroad is unswerving. She’s recently been involved in providing food and diapers to young mothers in New York’s Baby2Baby scheme, and has long standing associations as an ambassador for UNICEF, the World Food Programme and the Red Cross. 40 years on from the release of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, the films youngest, most famous and most controversial star has grown into a wholesome, lovable and most importantly stable individual, one who is showing that a traumatic childhood need not be a barrier to a happy, constructive and successful adult life.  

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