Barrymore driven to prove herself

Actress: The `Riding in Cars With Boys' star leaves her typically sunny disposition behind.

October 22, 2001|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - While the television blared the news that America had begun its attack on terrorism, Drew Barrymore stood in a hotel hallway, sobbing and hugging Sony Pictures boss John Calley: an older man comforting a scared young woman.

Barrymore finally collected herself enough to enter the room. She was here to promote Riding in Cars With Boys, her new movie that opened Friday. But the bombings in Afghanistan left the 26-year-old actress jittery and confused.

"I just don't know how to do my job all of a sudden, and that's a very strange feeling," she said, wiping away tears.

In Riding in Cars With Boys, Barrymore's character believes that four or five days change one's life. "Today is changing my life," Barrymore said.

A choked-up Barrymore added to the list of life-changing moments the day she met husband Tom Green and her release from a rehab clinic at age 14. ("I was put in an institution," she says, after her mother, Jaid Barrymore, and a friend forced her into treatment for alcohol abuse and an addiction to cocaine. "When I got out I realized how lucky I was and that everything is a gift and you have to be responsible for yourself.")

The sobs came harder now. "I can't swallow. How stupid is that?" she said, before again composing herself.

In Riding in Cars With Boys, Barrymore's character begins as a 15-year-old mother whose ambition is threatened by her heroin-addicted husband (Steve Zahn). The film, based on Beverly Donofrio's memoir, spans to Beverly's mid-30s, when her son is grown up and bitter.

Barrymore has been studying films from the World War II and Vietnam eras to figure out her next career move. She will do a comedy next, she said, because people need to laugh.

That she would consider herself a morale booster in wartime is no surprise. Adam Garcia, who plays her adult son in Riding, called her "America's Sweetheart." Brittany Murphy (Clueless), who plays her best friend, said, "Drew's public persona is one that is just a perfect role model for young women. It's an art form to her. It's one I'll learn, hopefully."

Just as the assault on the Taliban left Barrymore less than her sunny self, Riding in Cars With Boys was also a departure for her. Barrymore's Beverly is often self-absorbed and insensitive in her zeal to make a better life for her and her son.

"I gave up everything that is so fundamentally a part of me, which is being a happy Valley girl, to be this strong, unapologetic East Coast woman," Barrymore said.

The producers and director Penny Marshall bristled at the suggestion that the role was Oscar bait. Barrymore emphasized that she had no specific result in mind.

Only James Woods, who portrays Beverly's father, would utter the "O" word. Mother roles with tragicomic overtones do get long looks from the Academy. At the very least, Barrymore should earn validation as a serious actress.

Barrymore was initially just another candidate for the part. Marshall auditioned her first, then invited a stream of actresses to try out. Why the hesitation? "I needed to see if she would take the risk to be unlikable," Marshall said.

Producer Julie Ansell believed Barrymore had built up so much good will from comedies such as Never Been Kissed and The Wedding Singer that she would remain sympathetic despite Beverly's rough edges.

Barrymore's own drug addiction and feuds with her mother had special resonance in Riding in Cars With Boys. "I don't take motherhood as lightly as I used to," she said. "It's not playing dolls. It is not [playing] house."

Recently, Barrymore grabbed headlines for her make-believe marriage and pregnancy, and then real marriage to Green. In the spring, a fire burned down their Coldwater Canyon home and destroyed Barrymore's collection of heirlooms from her family's acting dynasty. If not for the barking and licking of Flossie, Barrymore's mutt, the couple say, they would not have survived.

Every tribulation seems to solidify Barrymore's image of a New Age Pollyanna. To Woods, she's the same purse-lipped cutie who captured filmgoers' hearts in E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.

"I met her at age 8," Woods said. "I thought life on the halfshell just rolled into the room. She hasn't lost that purity."

Barrymore wore a festive flower-print blouse and had her hair spiked with mousse on the day of the interview. Despite the unsettling events of Sept. 11 and afterward, Barrymore had a happy personal life. She was in love. She had a booming career made even bigger by producing and starring in Charlie's Angels. And she was about to show her public she had the chops in Riding in Cars With Boys.

But even America's Sweetheart felt helpless when the bombs started dropping. "I had such a life plan, but it doesn't make sense anymore," she said.

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