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TUNED IN

The Barrymores, Minus Their Art

September 19, 2002|LEE MARGULIES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They were known as the royal family of the American theater. That must explain the tabloid-like treatment they get from A&E's "Biography" tonight.

Just like the gossip hounds who make careers exposing the private lives behind the British throne, "The Barrymores" concerns itself almost exclusively with the personal traumas that have beset a U.S. acting dynasty stretching back more than a century--from Maurice and Georgie Drew Barrymore through their children Lionel, Ethel and John to their great-granddaughter Drew.

The two-hour program (8 p.m., A&E) offers no interviews, no insight--just a chronology of calamity, recounted in overwrought style by narrator Gary Sinise, who comes away with more screen time than some of the family members.

Admittedly, the Barrymores' lives are melodramatic to the max: alcoholism, infidelity, early deaths, financial hardship, divorce, drug addiction, even madness. But they gained their fame as artists, and writer-director Keith Clarke makes no attempt to explore the source of their talent or how it passed from one generation to the next. The result is an incomplete, unsatisfying viewing experience.

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