Movie Feature: Princess Charming

After years of being the bad girl, Drew Barrymore finally gets the role she deserves.

Published June 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

After almost 20 years in the public eye, Drew Barrymore has finally gotten to play a princess, and it's about time. Part of what's so satisfying about "Ever After," the smart and lushly romantic new version of "Cinderella" in which she stars, is that it revels in what other movies have only intermittently acknowledged: Barrymore's power to enchant.

Barrymore has the sort of charm that can make you cockeyed with happiness. In "Everyone Says I Love You," Tim Roth, playing a paroled bank robber, offers her this "dem, dese and dose" bouquet: "To me, you smell like what I think heaven must smell like." And earlier this year "The Wedding Singer" summed up what a treasure she is in one image: Adam Sandler, having finally worked up his nerve, heads over to Barrymore's house to tell her he's in love with her. There he sees the girl of his dreams standing in the soft glow of her second-story window, radiant in a storybook-perfect white wedding gown. The effect couldn't be much more stunning if that suburban colonial were a castle bower. Either way, she's right out of a fairy tale.

"Ever After," Barrymore's first real starring role, is a chance for her to dominate a picture from beginning to end. She does it sweetly, almost modestly, but with the charisma and presence of a born movie star. It's almost an anticlimax when the prince arrives to sweep her off her feet; she's swept the audience off their feet long before that.

Casting Barrymore as Cinderella is an inspired idea, and a tribute to director Andy Tennant's ability to see through the public's perception of Barrymore to her essence as a performer. Since she first appeared in "E.T.," that perception has changed from child star to too-much-too-soon Hollywood casualty to B-movie staple. She's kept working and growing. But no matter how good she's been, she's been saddled with the unfortunate tendency of audiences (and critics) to equate actors with the caliber of the movies they appear in. After the sexpot-rock 'n' roll-rebel roles Barrymore played in the likes of "Poison Ivy," "Guncrazy" and "Bad Girls," it was a done deal that she'd be typed as just another trashy starlet. The reason Christina Ricci hasn't suffered that perception -- though she's played the same sort of roles -- is that she chooses movies with an arty veneer. Ricci doesn't rise above the forced, calculated outrageousness of "The Opposite of Sex" or the execrable "personal" filmmaking of "Buffalo '66" (which I confess to fleeing after 40 minutes), but the art-house crowd can sit through them without feeling like they're slumming. Barrymore has had to wait until "Ever After" for a movie worthy of her, but she's consistently outclassed almost every picture she's been in.

She's a delight every moment she's on screen in the entertaining female buddy picture "Boys on the Side." She gets to do some loosey-goosey comedy in her very first scene. Sick of being knocked around by her drug-dealer boyfriend, Barrymore cold-cocks the s.o.b. with a baseball bat. He comes to, only to find himself duct-taped to a chair while Barrymore performs a teasing little cooch dance just out of his reach. When that's done, she plunks herself down in the guy's lap and snaps a Polaroid -- he's enraged and squirming; she's right next to him with a big, open-mouthed smile.

And she's frighteningly, wrenchingly effective in the teenage-lovers-on-the-lam picture "Mad Love." Barrymore sidesteps both the movie's clichid presentation of mental illness as a metaphor for being misunderstood and the hysterics that actors playing crazy people usually can't resist. She conveys encroaching madness as a series of small distractions that gradually overtake her. The expressions that glide over her face as she sits in a restaurant moving her head from side to side are the visual equivalent of a radio dial scanning across the wavelength, picking up every station within its radar.

Americans have a tendency to praise the sort of high-hatted acting we think of as enriching or improving. (Maybe because we're taught to think of our own native style -- in everyday speech or behavior, or in the arts -- as lacking somehow, or as being impolite or crude.) What we enjoy is another matter. (If it weren't, Olivia de Havilland -- not Vivien Leigh -- would be the heroine of "Gone with the Wind.") American moviegoers have always fallen for performers who are breezy, casual, sassy. Drew Barrymore's funky, friendly brand of sexiness is in a great American tradition of actresses who, like the young Jane Fonda of "Barefoot in the Park" and "Barbarella," are sexiest when they're funny. Barrymore is more sunny than sultry, less a bad girl than a naughty one.

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What makes her unique is that her naughtiness has always existed right
next to an ingénue's charm. (Not surprising. There was something of the
same mix in her grandfather, John. For all of his sophistication in movies
like "Grand Hotel," "Dinner at Eight" and "Twentieth Century," he
conveyed an appealing almost-earthiness.) Herb Ritts' striking 1993 portrait
of Drew reveals, as clear as day, the legendary Barrymore profile. Her beauty
is a mixture of ripeness (the full, voluptuous cheeks, the cherried Cupid's-bow mouth) and delicacy (the discreet, upturned nose, the tiny ears). There's
a fresh, open spontaneity that runs through all her performances. But if she
seems ready for anything in comedy, in drama it's just the opposite. She's
affecting precisely because she appears to have no defenses against her

"Ever After" taps right into that vulnerability. As Danielle, the 16th century French country girl whose father's death leaves her at the mercy of the stepmother, Rodmilla
(Anjelica Huston), who treats her like a despised servant, Barrymore suffers
taunts and cruelty, as every Cinderella does. Barrymore's fleshy physicality
has always made her seem more liable to be hurt. Every slight, every
indignity Danielle endures wounds us as well. "Ever After" is startlingly effective at
returning us to the way we experienced fairy tales as children: as primal
stories that awakened our sense of outrage at the injustices therein. But
Danielle doesn't suffer in silence. She tries to keep the peace with Rodmilla
and her two stepsisters, the conniving little shrew Marguerite (Megan Dodds)
and the docile, sympathetic Jacqueline (Melanie Lynskey). She knows when
to fight, though.

Tennant and his co-screenwriters, Susannah Grant and Rick Parks, have hit
upon the simple but inspired notion of giving us a Cinderella who doesn't need anybody to rescue her. There's a prince, but he's only here for love. Danielle (with the help of a dagger and sword) takes care of herself -- quite nicely, thank you -- when a lout tries to have his way with her. At one point, she even rescues her Prince Henry (Dougray Scott) by slinging him over her shoulder. The overwhelmingly female preview audience I saw "Ever After" with greeted that scene with an eruption of loud, appreciative laughter. There was no derision in it. The laughter told you they wanted to snuggle down into a romantic movie (and a deluxe one, thanks to Andrew Dunn's soft-hued photography and Michael Howells' gorgeous production design) that doesn't
deprive the heroine of her backbone, and that lets her act like a heroine. It's great that "Ever After" gives us a strong young female lead. But characters only become role models if they're charismatic enough to engage our fantasy lives (like Buffy or Mrs. Peel), and Barrymore's Danielle is. And that sort of appeal certainly isn't limited by gender. I'm betting men will be delighted by Danielle's independence. (I've known precious few men who enjoy frail, drippy damsels in distress -- on or off the screen.)

Danielle's feistiness is only the most obvious example of the movie's anachronistic feminism. I loved it that Jacqueline becomes an ally to her downtrodden stepsister. The chubby Jacqueline has no part to play in Rodmilla's plan to marry off Marguerite to the prince. "Ever After" refuses to make Jacqueline a victim, either. Lynskey (who played Kate Winslet's homicidal soul mate in "Heavenly Creatures") has a way of
wrinkling her nose with pleasure that's as endearing as the poker face she employs when turning the tables on her mother. The attempt to add dimensions to Huston's role as the wicked stepmother is more problematic. As she showed in "The Witches," Huston is a whiz at evil storybook caricature. Some of her line readings are self-satisfied pips, as when she chides Danielle's bookworm tendencies with "Some people read because they cannot think for themselves." Fawning over the queen (Judy
Parfitt) when she's invited to tea or plotting to put the prince under Marguerite's spell, Huston is a grasping, avaricious delight. "Ever After" wants to show where that desperation comes from, though, and so we see Rodmilla's panic when Danielle's father dies. The way Huston yells, "Don't leave me here!" to his corpse tells you everything you need to know about the loneliness and financial hardships awaiting her. And Huston reveals a glimmer of grief for her long-dead husband when Rodmilla softens during a
moment alone with Danielle. But finally, Rodmilla is the villain of the piece, and the shadings Huston works into the character have to be ignored so she can fulfill that function. (There's no such problem with Dodds' Marguerite -- she's eminently, irresistibly hissable.)

The centerpiece of Cinderella is usually the heroine's outward transformation when she goes to the ball. "Ever After" presents that part of the story with a canny mix of invention and luxury. You have to love any version of Cinderella where Leonardo da Vinci is the fairy godmother and the slipper our heroine leaves behind at the ball has been designed by Ferragamo. "Ever After" doesn't deny Barrymore her big entrance, and she's a vision in her gossamer-winged gown. (The joke of her calming herself by
saying, "Just breathe," is that you feel the collective breath go out of the party as soon as they lay eyes on her.) But we've fallen for her long before that. And in this version of the story, the prince's search to fit the slipper to the girl isn't the result of some spell that wears off like cheap cold medicine, but his own inability to see the girl in front of him for who she is. (Danielle has told the prince she's a countess in order to disguise her humble station.) The end of the ball (the emotional high point of the movie) is heartbreaking. "Ever After" misses a few steps in the scenes that follow, primarily by not dramatizing the prince's realization that he's acted like a schmuck. He's not the attraction here, anyway (though Scott is handsome enough, in a conventionally princely way).

It's not every star vehicle that manages the constant clever invention this one does without once getting in the way of its star. (The filmmakers have even come up with a nifty device to introduce those changes: a framing prologue where the queen of France -- Jeanne Moreau, speaking the most purring English since Joan Greenwood in "Kind Hearts and Coronets" -- summons the Brothers Grimm to tell them the true story behind their tale of "The Little Cinder Girl.") It takes a while to get used to Barrymore's demure appearance here; long, straight brown hair has replaced her usual flirty blond mop.
But the tremulous yet strong-willed emotion and dashing bravery the role affords her are a more than fair trade-off. (I'm sure there will be quibbling about her English accent. But people who measure actors by accents are the ones ready to proclaim every Englishman on "Masterpiece Theatre" the new Laurence Olivier.) Barrymore is so piercingly, open-heartedly direct that the story's every moment of joy and heartbreak seem freshly minted. There's a wonderful, silly solidarity in being part of an audience watching a Cinderella who thinks she's saying goodbye to her prince forever ask him,
"Why did you have to be so wonderful?" and feeling everyone around you has the same nick in their heart. But it shouldn't come as a surprise. Drew Barrymore has been the most effortless of charmers since "E.T." It's what she's held on to through all her transformations. She had the allure of a movie princess long before she put on the crown that confirms her as a star here.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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