Missy Schwartz
March 16, 2007 AT 04:00 AM EDT

No one is universally beloved in Hollywood, but Drew Barrymore comes pretty close. Bring up her name and chances are you’ll get a response like, ”I love her! She’s adorable — and savvy!” And what’s not to like? She’s a former child actor who triumphantly returned from the abyss of self-destruction. She’s showbiz royalty who calls Steven Spielberg her godfather, but whose personality is as sweetly disarming as her Cindy Brady lisp. And she’s the rare actress who also moonlights as a successful producer, having helped turn the Charlie’s Angels franchise into a more than $500 million hit worldwide.

And yet, recent box office returns indicate that Barrymore isn’t quite connecting with audiences like she used to. A month after its release, her latest movie, Music and Lyrics, costarring Hugh Grant, has grossed $44 million in the U.S. That’s not a shameful number considering that her previous pic, Fever Pitch, topped out at a tepid $42 million in 2005. But it’s worlds away from the $120 million haul of 2004’s 50 First Dates, her last real hit. To be fair, Grant’s career isn’t exactly on fire either (his last box office smash was 2002’s Two Weeks Notice), and Music is doing strong business overseas. Still, the 32-year-old star could be headed for the kind of creative rut that’s dogged fellow perky actress Meg Ryan — forever stuck in the girlish rom-com phase of her career.

Since launching her production company, Flower Films, in 1995, Barrymore has mostly starred in lightweight romances as cutesy characters who have yet to embrace their womanhood fully: The Wedding Singer, Ever After, Never Been Kissed…the list goes on. Barrymore seems to be aware of her dilemma, telling guest reporter Carrie Fisher in the current issue of Glamour magazine: ”I still don’t feel like a woman…. Am I going to be making eggs in my kitchen and all of a sudden it’s going to dawn on me that I’m a woman?” (Barrymore was unavailable for comment.)

No one’s saying Barrymore isn’t as lovable as a pink-nosed kitten, but maybe it’s time to learn from Reese Witherspoon, who veered away from her giddy Legally Blonde image with projects like Walk the Line — and won an Oscar. By not tackling more complex fare, Barrymore (who earns a reported $15 million per film) runs the risk of mimicking herself right out of the romantic-comedy genre that helped stabilize her up-and-down career in the ’90s. ”Drew’s been through a lot in her life,” says a top Hollywood talent manager. ”There’s got to be more she can show us.”

She might already be on her way. In May, Barrymore appears alongside Eric Bana as a world-weary Vegas singer in Lucky You, a poker drama directed by Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) . The long-delayed film is suffering from bad buzz after sitting on the shelf for nearly two years and may not break box office records, but it can’t hurt Barrymore to be seen in a more grown-up role. Which brings us to the actress’ most intriguing new project yet. This summer, she joins two-time Oscar winner Jessica Lange to shoot the feature-film adaptation of the cult documentary (and hit Broadway show) Grey Gardens. She’ll play ”Little” Edie Bouvier Beale, the eccentric debutante and cousin to Jackie Onassis who lived in gothic squalor with her mother, Edie, on a crumbling Long Island estate for decades. ”It’s a great forum for her talents,” promises Gardens producer Rachael Horovitz. ”Drew’s making a fantastic statement about what she can be as an artist.” And this particular role could be just what Barrymore’s résumé needs. Little Edie, as Gardens devotees know, was a flibbertigibbet whose bubbly facade hid a great deal of pain. How perfect, then, that the little girl from E.T. might finally reach the next stage of her career by playing to type in the most wonderfully exaggerated way.

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