Born into the Barrymore-Drew acting dynasty, Ethel Barrymore initially wanted to become a concert pianist but accepted a future in acting. Prior to making her stage debut opposite her uncle John Drew Jr. in a play when she was fifteen years old, Barrymore was educated at a convent.
Her first starring role on stage was in Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines (1900-1901), and she became known as “the first lady of the American theater.” She made her film debut in The Nightingale (1914), but returned to the stage in 1919 because she was not comfortable working in films, where there was no feedback from an audience.
Although she was not exempt from the “Barrymore curse” of overindulgence in alcohol, she never let it affect her performances. She was very popular with the social leaders of the period and supposedly even turned down a marriage proposal from the then up-and-coming British politician Winston Churchill.
She was brought back to films by the prospect of appearing with her two brothers, John and Lionel. The three co-starred in Rasputin and the Empress (1932) in which she played the Czarina Alexandra, with Lionel playing Rasputin and John playing Prince Paul Chegodieff, one of the conspirators in Rasputin's death.
After several unsuccessful plays, she again returned to films, achieving success and comfort playing supporting roles. In 1944 she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Ma Mott in None but the Lonely Heart. She received three other Oscar nominations for The Spiral Staircase (1946), The Paradine Case (1947), and Pinky (1949).
She was the longest-lived of the “Fabulous Barrymores” and lived long enough to break into the newest entertainment medium—television. In addition to appearing on some of the dramatic anthology programs, she had her own series, The Ethel Barrymore Theater (1956), which she hosted, as well as occasionally starring in the plays that were presented.
Her autobiography, Memories, was published three years before her death.
|1915||The Final Judgment|
|1916||The Kiss of Hate; The Awakening of Helena Ritchie|
|1917||The White Raven; The Call of Her People; The Greatest Power; The Lifted Veil; Life's Whirlpool; The Eternal Mother; An American Widow; National Red Cross Pageant|
|1918||Our Mrs. McChesney|
|1932||Rasputin and the Empress|
|1935||All at Sea|
|1943||Show Business at War|
|1944||None but the Lonely Heart|
|1946||The Spiral Staircase|
|1947||The Farmer's Daughter; The Paradine Case; Moss Rose|
|1948||Night Song; Moonrise; Portrait of Jennie|
|1949||The Great Sinner; Pinky; That Midnight Kiss; The Red Danube|
|1951||It's a Big Country; The Secret of Convict Lake; Kind Lady|
|1952||Deadline—U.S.A.; Just for You|
|1953||The Story of Three Loves; Main Street to Broadway|
|1954||Young at Heart|