Fowler begins Good Night, Sweet Prince with a short “Overture” to establish that the book was written by an intimate friend of Barrymore, someone who knew him well. The reader is reminded of Fowler’s relationship to his subject when the author supplements his narrative with references to recent conversations, especially with John’s brother Lionel. Although its emphasis is not on hard facts and documentary evidence, the book persuades its readers that they are receiving an intimate and well-rounded picture of Barrymore. Because so much of Good Night, Sweet Prince is taken up by anecdotes and whole scenes from Barrymore’s life, the book gives readers the impression that they are listening to a man of the world who knew Barrymore intimately. This impression seems to be correct: The biography’s moving final chapters describe many scenes in which Fowler himself plays a role, and the biographer was one of those who kept watch as Barrymore died. The reader is brought even closer to the actor by his biographer’s prose; Fowler’s somewhat old-fashioned and whimsical way with words is also Barrymore’s way, as one notices from the many quotations from the actor’s letters.
Fowler does not whitewash Barrymore’s faults. It is clear that the actor was extravagantly promiscuous, uncontrollably alcoholic, moody, unpredictable, self-centered, and childishly self-indulgent. Nevertheless, the portrait that Fowler provides to the reader is ultimately sympathetic. Barrymore was usually honest and loyal, wanted to be liked, was a marvelous but exasperating drinking companion, and...
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Good Night, Sweet Prince is not the usual sort of biography written for young adults. It is not an uplifting story, as it cannot be said that Barrymore provided a good role model: He can be described as an irresponsible and childish alcoholic. Even though Fowler does not approve of Barrymore’s excesses, he obviously asks the reader to admire the joy that the actor took in living life in the fast lane. Moreover, when it appeared, the book’s frankness about liquor and sex was moderately shocking. Yet Good Night, Sweet Prince is worthwhile because it does give a complex picture of an extraordinary individual. The book is not a run-of-the-mill show busi-ness biography: It is not a story rendered “as told to” a Hollywood hack journalist, and it is neither a sensationalized tale nor a sanitized version for adoring fans.
This work continues to be popular with teenage readers long after it has ceased to shock. The theater and motion pictures continue to fascinate young adult readers, and this book tells a story of how one person achieved success on both stage and screen, as Barrymore was probably the most famous American actor of his day. Some readers will be interested in Barrymore’s radio career, in the years when radio played the role in American lives that television was to play later. Most readers will respond to what is a tragic story: Barrymore was an actor of great gifts who achieved eminence, only to fall pathetically and even heroically from causes for which he was partially responsible. Most of all, its wonderful stories make Good Night, Sweet Prince a classic biography. The anecdotes may be exaggerated, but their authenticity and humor have entertained many readers since the book’s publication.