Wild Thing: Drew Barrymore

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By that time, Barrymore had grown-up problems of her own. Having achieved stardom in E.T. at the age of 7, she moved on to a series of successes in such movies as Firestarter and Irreconcilable Differences. She was a 40-year-old in a 9-year-old's body, and she played the role with precocious ease. Talk shows, drinks, movie offers, nightclubs, cocaine. All before the seventh grade. Then, at 14, it all seemed too much.

"I did attempt suicide, but I didn't really want to die," Barrymore says now. "At least I didn't want to disappear permanently. They rushed me to the hospital and saved me, and there I had to make a conscious decision. I made a conscious decision that I really wanted to live."

The hospital where she spent the next few months was a cross between a rehab center and a mental institution. On the inside she experienced characters like Lillian, the elderly woman in the adult ward who would suddenly slam down her lunch tray and in her best Mae West imitation scream, "You just paid a quarter for an orgasm!" On the outside, living on her own and trying to make ends meet, Barrymore filed the papers necessary to emancipate herself from her parents in order to legally work the same hours as 18-year-olds. Fifteen-year-old recovering substance abusers, she found, sometimes have a difficult time paying the rent.

"She's so appealing, and she's so bright, and she's such an essentially nice human being," says rock star David Crosby, who along with his wife, Jan, took in Barrymore for close to a year after her treatment. "We found it very easy to love her, and I still do. I knew her dad, and I know her mom. I've watched the four generations of major alcoholic destruction that she comes out of. So I feel very strongly about her. She's an extremely talented kid who got dealt a very short hand. Her father was a disaster and never made any attempts to correct it – let's leave it at that. And to put it very mildly, as politely as I can, I disagree with her mother's approach to life rather much. I would really hope that Drew keep a distance from her. I will say this: I consider her mother one of the worst influences possible."

Luckily for Drew Barrymore, there were more parental substitutes – fantasy figures for most of the world but the only grounding forces in her existence. To this day, Steven Spielberg still tells Barrymore that she is his eldest child.

"If people like David and Jan and Steven weren't in my life, I'd probably be a lot more fucked up than I am," says Barrymore. "They made me believe that there actually were trustworthy people out there."

Barrymore fidgets and for a split second begins a microtirade about how Spielberg can only see her as his little girl. Then a moment later she smiles and admits that this is precisely the way she likes it.

This year on her birthday Spielberg sent a package to a restaurant where she and friends had gathered. In it was a blanket and a copy of the Playboy magazine in which Barrymore recently posed for a pictorial. The note said: "Here's my version of you in Playboy and a blanket to wrap yourself in." Inside the magazine Spielberg's art department had woven its own computer-generated wardrobe to cover her in every photo.

Drew Barrymore claims that no one who truly cares about her would dare call her Drew. It is a name she has heard and read so many times in so many contexts that she can barely stomach it. Some people call her D, but to most she is Daisy. Around her neck she wears a beaded, grade-school-style necklace that proudly spells out her flowery alias.

In person Barrymore is tiny, a miniature version of herself: ultrahip, 70s leftovers tightly clinging to her matchstick limbs and a coquettish expression attached to a face that doesn't look a day removed from her role in E.T. Because of this she possesses the ability to charm those around her in two contradictory manners. One is overt: all over-the-top enchantment and a contagious overflow of positive energy. The other is passive: a thinly veiled sadness and a distinct awareness that she comes with her share of baggage and could certainly use a little help in carrying it. She uses both tactics equally, and each comes in handy. Her history, she knows, is one in which most of the world is well schooled.

"I think the day I read an article that doesn't talk about my past, I'll probably shit in my pants," says Barrymore out of the blue. "Just shit my pants. I've never shit my pants my whole life, but that will be the time."

A laundry problem is quickly averted. Talk turns to Mad Love, and Barrymore, without missing a beat, travels back in time to make a point.

"My character goes into an institution, and her brain starts to deteriorate," she says. "How many other fucking actresses can relate to that?" She stops, waves her arm in the air like a kid trying to get the teacher's attention and shouts at the top of her lungs, "I can!"

And so the question bubbles menacingly to the surface: Does she worry about drinking again after having lost a year of her life to institutionalized rehabilitation?

"Every time I take a sip of alcohol, I think, 'What will people think?' " Barrymore says. "That's strange. Try that on for fucking size, living your life in a fishbowl for everyone to judge you. How 'bout that?"

Instead of an answer, another question is asked. This time, it is whether – regardless of public opinion – she fears that drinking might shatter the fragile balance that she has achieved in her life and career. She is, after all, part of a family tree that has been tragically uprooted by its history of alcoholism. To this, she smiles sweetly.

"I'm fine," Barrymore says. "This is what kills me. Ask any person in this industry if I ever missed one fucking day of work or if I was ever unprofessional or threw a temper tantrum or walked onto the set drunk. It's never happened. Doesn't that stand for something?"

She pauses and affects the more dramatic tone of a veteran actress.

"The only reason anyone found out anything about me is because some guy broke into my hospital and reported it," she says. "I never asked him to exploit my story. Nobody ever would have known, because I never missed a day of work over it. This guy has some pretty gnarly karma coming. So to clear the record I had to tell people myself. I had to go, 'OK, I'm getting my fucking life together.' And now I'm fine. I'm happy."

Barrymore dabs her hand at the tears that are beginning to chase each other down her cheeks and chooses her most childlike tone. "Can't just be happy?"

It is not your typical uniform in which to commune with nature. We are seated in a park alongside New York's East River, and Drew Barrymore is extolling the virtues of the great outdoors. She is wearing a leopard-print coat and an intentionally loose, low-cut blouse circa Charlie's Angels, the Cheryl Ladd years. Her purple sunglasses are held together with a diaper pin, and her hair is in spiky disarray. It is a souvenir snapshot from the Sex Pistols' reunion picnic. If, of course, they ever decide to hold one.

Barrymore settles onto a park bench and begins playing with a friend's dog. Suddenly she leans back and stares intently into the air.

"I tell you, nothing makes you appreciate being outside more than being locked up for a year," she says. "Nobody appreciates the sky more than me. Nobody. I have this fear that goes way beyond claustrophobia. I want to fucking be free. I mean that in every possible way."

More than any one thing, Barrymore seems defined by her inner battle between yearning for liberation and needing security and reassurance. She repeatedly and emphatically stresses that her friends are her family. Since the age of 15 she has lived a life of utter independence. At the same time, she has almost never been without a boyfriend, and a large number of those relationships have been live-in. When she and Erlandson began dating last June, they set about cohabiting almost immediately.

It wasn't your typical beginning to a love story (unless your idea of romance involves vomiting, in which case your opportunities are probably rather limited). It was in Los Angeles, outside a rock club, and Barrymore had stepped outside to relieve herself of anything she had eaten in the last 24 hours. Suddenly a hand was placed on her shoulder. Noticing the tiny creature purging herself in the relatively seedy neighborhood, Erlandson had stopped to stand guard. Skyrockets, however, were not yet in flight.

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