Oscar Actors: Barrymore, Ethel–Background, Career, Filmography

Oscar Alert

Ethel Barrymore was one of few actresses to have received four Best Supporting Actress nominations, winning for her first one, in 1944.

1944: None But the Lonely Heart
1946: The Spiral Staircase
1947: The Paradine Case
1949: Pinky

Ethel Barrymore was born August 15, 1879 as Ethel Mae Blythe in Philadelphia, the second child of the actors Maurice Barrymore (ne Herbert Blythe) and Georgiana Drew. She was named for her father’s favorite character—Ethel in William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Newcomes.

She was the sister of actors John and Lionel Barrymore, the aunt of actor John Drew Barrymore, and great-aunt of actress Drew Barrymore. She was also a granddaughter of actress and theater-manager Louisa Lane Drew (Mrs. John Drew), and niece of Broadway matinée idol John Drew Jr and Vitagraph Studios stage and screen star Sidney Drew.

She spent her childhood in Philadelphia, where she attended Roman Catholic schools.  In 1884, the family sailed to England and stayed there two years. Maurice had inherited a substantial amount of money from an aunt and decided to exhibit a play and star in some plays at London’s Haymarket Theatre.

The years in England were the happiest due to the fact the Barrymores were more of a nuclear family in London than in the U.S.

In the summer of 1893 Barrymore was in the company of her mother, Georgie, who had been ailing from tuberculosis and took a curative sabbatical to Santa Barbara, California, not far from where family friend Helena Modjeska had a retreat. Georgie died in July 1893 a week before her 37th birthday. Ethel’s and Lionel’s childhood ended when Georgie died; they were forced to work in their teens with neither finishing high school. John, younger, stayed with their grandmother and other relatives. Barrymore’s first appearance on Broadway was in 1895, in The Imprudent Young Couple which starred her uncle John Drew, Jr., and Maude Adams. She appeared with Drew and Adams again in 1896 in Rosemary.

In 1897 Ethel went with William Gillette to London to play Miss Kittridge in Gillette’s Secret Service. Henry Irving and Ellen Terry offered her the role of Annette in The Bells. Winston Churchill asked her to marry him, but, not wishing to be politician’s wife, she refused. Winston married Clementine Hozier, a beauty who looked very much like Ethel. Winston and Ethel remained friends until the end of her life. Their “romance” was their own secret until his son revealed it decades later.

After season in London, Ethel returned to the U.S. Charles Frohman cast her fin Catherine and then as Stella de Grex in His Excellency the Governor. He then gave Ethel the role that would make her a star, Madame Trentoni in Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, which opened at the Garrick Theatre in London’s West End on February 4, 1901. Her father attended the show, in what became the first and only time he saw her on stage professionally. When the tour concluded in Boston in June, she had out-drawn the most prominent actresses of her day, Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Minnie Maddern Fiske.

In Thomas Raceward’s Sunday that she uttered what would be her most famous line, “That’s all there is, there isn’t any more.”

She portrayed Nora in A Doll’s House by Ibsen (1905), and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare (1922).

Barrymore, along with fMarie Dressler, was a strong supporter of the Actors’ Equity Association and had high-profile role in the 1919 strike. AEA came into being primarily to allow performers to have a bigger share in the profits of stage productions and to provide benefit to elderly or infirm actors. This angered many producers and cost Barrymore her friendship with George M. Cohan, an actor, songwriter and producer. Ethel Barrymore’s involvement in AEA may have been motivated by the fate of her parents actors; her mother needed proper medical care and her father required institutionalized care.

In 1926, she score a greatest success as the sophisticated spouse of philandering husband in W. Somerset Maugham’s comedy, The Constant Wife.

She starred in Rasputin and the Empress (1932), playing the czarina married to Czar Nicholas.

After she became a stage star, she would often dismiss adoring audiences who kept demanding curtain calls by saying “That’s all there is—there isn’t any more!” This became a popular catch phrase in the 1920s and 1930s. Many references to it can be found in the media of the period, including the Laurel and Hardy 1933 film Sons of the Desert, and Arthur Train’s 1930 Wall Street Crash novel Paper Profits.

In 1928, the Shuberts opened the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, which operates under that name to the present day.

Barrymore appeared in her first feature, The Nightingale, in 1914. Members of her family were already in pictures; uncle Sidney Drew, his wife Gladys Rankin, and Lionel had entered films in 1911 and John made his first feature in 1913 after having debuted in Lubin short films in 1912.

She made 15 silent pictures between 1914 and 1919, most for the Metro Pictures studio on the East Coast, as her Broadway career and children came first; few of her silent films have survived.

The two films that featured all three siblings—Ethel, John, and Lionel—were “National Red Cross Pageant” (1917, considered lost) and “Rasputin and the Empress” (1932).

Barrymore won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in None but the Lonely Heart (1944) opposite Cary Grant; she was not overly impressed by it.

She appeared in The Spiral Staircase (1946) directed by Robert Siodmak, The Paradine Case (1947) directed by Hitchcock, in which she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, for playing the repressed wife of Charles Laughton’s character. Other important roles include “Portrait of Jennie” (1948), and “The Red Danube” (1949), among others.

Her last film appearance was in “Johnny Trouble” (1957).

Ethel Barrymore died of cardiovascular disease on June 18, 1959, at her home in Hollywood; she was 79.