There is an old adage in Hollywood, first coined by comedian W.C. Fields, that directors should never work with children or animals. Younger kids, like animals, can often have a difficult time following cues, and can have a hard time memorizing their lines. They can also be very unpredictable, and thus by their very natures, they are uncontrollable. At the same time, by going with actual children, as was the case of the Peanuts specials, the Harry Potter films, or the first Narnia movie, going with children can also lend a sense of authenticity that might be missing with more polished and seasoned actors.
Steven Spielberg was certainly aware of both the trials and joys of working with children. According to the set diary Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the little grey aliens that came to take away Richard Dreyfuss were so hyper and bouncing off the walls that Spielberg had to yell “Girls, stop disco dancing.” On the other hand, one only need look at the memorable and infectious performances Spielberg got from the likes of Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds, Haley Joel Osment in A.I., Ariana Richards and Joseph Mozello in Jurassic Park, Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun, Charlie Korsmo and Amber Scott in Hook, and Jonathan Li Quan in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to see that he excelled at getting the best from young actors.
However, where this skill really stood out was the performances of the three young actors
in E.T. Each member of this little trio brought something special to the table, and this was all the more evident in the baby of the family, Elliot’s sister Gertie, played by Drew Berrymore. Oddly enough, the youngest member of the family in E.T. would be the first one selected for a part. As Sean Hutchinson noted in “20 Things You Might Not Know About E.T.” for Mental Floss,
“Getting the right young actors to play the three main young siblings was a paramount problem for Spielberg. The first kid he cast was Drew Barrymore as Gertie, the youngest of the trio. During her audition, the six-year-old Barrymore allegedly told Spielberg that she wasn’t really an actress at all but rather the drummer of a loud and menacing punk rock band called the Purple People Eaters, who painted their faces with makeup for every show and who had played to an arena packed with thousands of people the night before. Spielberg recognized the value of her vivid imagination and she got the part.”
Gertie helped add a level of humor to the story due to her being the youngest. Much of what she says and does comes through the lens of her natural innocence and curiosity, all topped off with a mischievous grin. She may look like a cherub, but her halo is just a little crooked, making her all the more lovable. She is the quintessential babysitter we would all love to have.
As Simon Hattenstone notes in “Drew Barrymore: ‘My mother locked me up in an institution at 13. Boo hoo! I Needed It’” an article for the British newspaper The Guardian that looked at the actresses long and sordid journey through Hollywood as a child star who had all he struggles, and managed to bounce back and rebuild herself, said of her character,
“In a film of cuties (the little boy Elliott, E.T. himself), Barrymore’s pigtailed, open-mouthed Gertie out-cuted them all, her initial terror evolving into something approaching sibling love.”
Notably, she is absent in the establishing moment where we are first introduced to her older brothers. Aside from it being past her bed-time, the game they are playing is not for kids her age, and their behavior is probably not appropriate for her to be exposed to.
Thus we get to meet her after Elliot actually sees E.T. for the first time during a family dinner the next night. She’s quite enthusiastic for Halloween, letting everyone know she’s going as a cowgirl, and wants to know what her brothers are planning. However the simple mocking suggestion of a “Goblin” is enough to derail the conversation to what Elliot saw in the shed. When Michael offers his suggestions of what Elliot probably saw, she repeats a few items of interest to her, namely the suggestions of alligators in the sewers and a deformed kid.
However, while Michael doubts Elliot’s story, Gertie accepts what the boy is saying. So much so that she worries the “thing” would be taken to the dog catcher to be put down when mother tells Elliot that if the thing comes back to tell her or Michael and they’ll call somebody to handle the problem. Thus, she shares Elliot’s instant concern for the creature’s well being. She is a sweet little girl that wouldn’t want a poor, lost creature to be harmed.
We also see that of the children she is perhaps the most in the dark about what happened with their father. Michael is angry and trying his best to be the man of the house, and Elliot is hurting and wishes his dad would come home, but Gertie, however doesn’t seem to understand what they are talking about. When Elliot says that his dad is in Mexico with Sally, Gertie can only ask the rest of them what is Mexico. Later on in the film when asked about any family troubles when Elliot goes missing and Mary mentions that she and her husband are in fact legally separated, Gertie can only repeat that “my father’s in Mexico” like some kind of mantra.
Despite the tension in her family, Gertie seems to look up to both of her brothers. Elliot may see her as a nuisance at times, after all, few boys his age would look forward to eagerly playing with their baby sister, but Gertie however can’t wait to do things with him. When she returns home from school that day, she is excited to give Elliot something she made for him at school as a get well present. She doesn’t’ even bother to knock, she just barged right in, and this leads to her first meeting with E.T.
This first meeting with this alien leads to one of the most unintentionally humorous moments in the film. While first contact between Elliot and E.T. led to them both screaming out of surprise, this time it’s different when Gertie screams. As Jim Emerson notes in “Making Contact: Spielberg’s Close Encounters and E.T.” from Roge Ebert.com,
“ By now, this custom appears to be old hat for E.T. He raises his neck, puts up his hands and returns her scream, as if to say, “OK, if this is the customary way we introduce ourselves here, I have learned my manners.” The funniest moment in the film, for me, is when Gertie steps into the closet, turns to stare at E.T. (offscreen), opens her mouth and lets loose another shriek. Michael puts his hand over her mouth and drags her out of the frame, screen left, while from screen right a squealing E.T. glides into view to complete and return her greeting. He actually seems to be enjoying this. What a funny way to say ‘hi.’”
Once they have had the chance to calm down, Elliot slowly produces her to their new alien friend. While Michael’s questions help keep Elliot grounded and show that as the oldest he is a bit more skeptical, Gertie asks some of the more natural questions, like,
“What is it? Is he a boy or a girl? Was he wearing any clothes?”
We also learn quickly that despite being the “baby of the family” and her precociousness sometimes causing problems, that Gertie is not an idiot. Like Charlie Brown’s baby sister Sally not believing Linus about the Easter Beagle after being cheated out of tricks or treats after the Great Pumpkin never showed up, Gertie is not anybodies fool and won’t by silly children’s excuses. As Michael Sragow notes in E.T. turns 30 for The New Yorker,
“The movie never becomes entranced with its own sensitivity. In the extras, Spielberg says that if he were depicting his own childhood home it would have been more raucous. But the movie is just rowdy enough—as a director he’s still keen to the way each sibling carves out his or her own space. Barrymore’s Gertie has a hilarious blitheness and precocity; she calls her mom “Mary” as if they’re buddies.”
This is best seen when her brothers tell her not to tell their mom about E.T. It is more than obvious by her bond with her mother, that she is at the phase where she tells her mother everything and this is no exception. She thinks that this little guy is the greatest thing ever, and can’t wait to show her.
Elliot quickly gives the excuse of, “Because only little kids can see him.”
To which Gertie snarks back at him, “Give me a break.”
It was a small moment in the film that is often overlooked but it added a great deal of dimension to what could have just been a clone of Cindy from the Brady Bunch. The late screenwriter Melissa Mathison recounted to Michael Sragow for The New Yorker, in regards to her favorite moment in the movie, said,
“Gertie improvising ‘Give me a break!’ after Elliot tells her only little kids can see E.T. I’m not sure if Steven urged her, steered her, or just lapped up the joy of Drew’s wackiness. It was sweet.”
Thus her brothers are forced to get her to keep the promise the only way they know how: by torturing her by threatening to destroy her doll like in the old days. Gertie, ever the “good mama” with her babies like any little girl with her dolls, doesn’t want them hurt and relents to her brother’s request. Thus, in the next scene, presumably after dinner, we see her head upstairs to play with her brothers, only for her mom not to let them torture her.
Thus she is ushered into their fold as E.T. continues to bring the family together. While Michael asks a series of skeptical questions, hoping to make sense of their new visitor and trying his hardest to find some rational explanation, like some kind of lab experiment on monkeys or orangutans, Gertie, however, can only quip in seeing how much food E.T. is eating,
“Is he a pig? He sure eats like one.”
She also comments on how ugly she thinks E.T.’s feet are, only to get chewed out by Elliot. While her brothers intent on learning where the creature came from, Gertie, sees this more as one big play time, and just wants to share more toys and games with him. She tries talking over her brothers questions, telling E.T.,
“You could make faces. And make them mean and happy…and make them get sharp teeth…You could make all sorts of things.”
Even after E.T. points out the window to indicate where he came from, and makes a series of orbs float like planets around the sun, she still seems to treat him like a plaything, in the same way an older sibling may regard a new baby or a pet. She dubs him simply “the man from the moon”, and it doesn’t take long for her to go back on her promise to Michael and Elliot to leave their mother out of the loop. In fact the next day when she and her mother return home, Gertie takes the opportunity to try and introduce her mother to the alien as the little guy wanders around the house in a drunken stupor.
This thankfully means her plans are foiled as is best seen when Mary hits E.T. with the refrigerator door and the alien falls over, leaving a bewildered Gertie to state,
“Here he is…The man from the moon. But I think you’ve killed him already.”
While her mother is distracted by a call from the school regarding Elliot’s escapade in freeing the frogs during science class, Gertie sits down to watch TV. The alien hides behind the set and thanks to Gertie’s tendency to repeat things, she repeats the letter of the day segment from the Sesame Street episode she is watching. This helps illuminate just why in her establishing moment where she would repeat things her brother would say like “Alligators in the sewers” and “a deformed kid.” While never stated outright in the film, the novelization and script reveal that she is supposed to be five years old. She is still learning her “big word”’ and how to communicate properly with others.
Because of this she is better able then her brother to teach the little alien how to speak English as they are in a similar developmental stage in terms of understanding life on Earth. While she repeats her “letter of the day” E.T. does the same as he peaks his head up and repeats after her, learning to say the words “B.” “Good” and “phone.” Thus, in learning how to say phone, she is the one to find out that their new friend at least wants to make contact. She isn’t sure who, or where, she just knows he wants to “call” somebody.
Excited she shows her mom what she taught her new playmate, only for her mother to ignore once again. Thus, we see that much like how E.T. filled the gap in Elliot’s life for a “father figure” Gertie got a much desired playmate. With her mom busy trying to hold down a job and take care of three kids, Gertie needs someone just like that.
Thus , until her brother returns she takes the alien up to their bedroom to play with him more. Thus in some ways, she and Elliot end up playing a childhood game of “house” with the alien. While Elliot takes on the role of E.T.’s protector and educates him about Earth culture like a father, Gertie takes on a more nurturing and almost maternal role. When E.T. can’t understand Elliot’s lesson about earth culture and nearly eats a toy card thinking it’s “Food” like the fake peanut that he is also not supposed to eat, Elliot chastises him, only to realize that perhaps the alien is hungry.
Gertie however praises the alien when he does a good job learning his words, and can’t wait to show off his accomplishments. Further, like a little girl with a dolly or a teddy bear while playing house, Gertie dresses E.T. up like an old bag lady and one can only assume that the two of them probably had a tea party together until Elliot came in the room.
As Paul Kramer notes in “Dealing with Emotional Trauma in and through E.T.” from Children in the films of Steven Spielberg,
“Even little Gertie, who the two boys probably had previously thought to be too young- and too girly to be bothered with, is now part of their conspiracy. The film does however continue to high-light age and gender differences insofar as Gertie, who is not at all satisfied with Elliot’s answer to her question whether E.T. is a boy or a girl… (she)dress E.T. in girls clothes…”
Initially her brother is more frustrated when he sees how Gertie dressed the alien, so much so that he doesn’t register that the alien can actually talk to them. It’s only after the alien says his name a few times, and Elliot has had some time to calm down, that he begins to notice this new development. Gertie not only proudly shares her role in the aliens education, but shows her brother what the alien worked on while they were gone, saying,
“I taught him how to talk now. He can talk now…Look what he brought up here all by himself. What’s he need this stuff for?”
Her teaching him to talk was perhaps one of the most important developments for the bond the children would share with the alien. While Elliot may be able to “feel” E.T.’s feelings he can’t really know what the alien wants. The barrier between the alien and the children seems impenetrable until he can cross that language barrier courtesy of Gertie. Thus, he is better able to communicate to them what he wants the most.
However, while her brothers are busy trying to find supplies to build the communications device, Gertie tends to remain removed from much of the process. In fact, during a tender moment between E.T. and Elliot, we see through the slats in the closet door that it’s time for her to go to bed and we see Mary reading her the story of Peter Pan. We see her enthusiastically clap at the key moment in the story where Peter tells the reader that Tinkerbell will live if only children believe in fairies and clap. We see her clap so passionately and enthusiastically, and thus we see just why she seems to go along without questioning on her brothers plan. Michael may be the grounded one who reminds Elliot to take a step back and look at the big picture, but Gertie is a genuine believer . She can see the wonder with Elliot.
While she doesn’t believe the imaginary friend line, she s caught up in the magic and the fairy tale of it all. To her it’s all one big game. As David Denby notes in “ The Visionary Gleam”, his review of E.T. for New York Magazine,
“For Gertie, E.T.’ s part of a world of toys and dolls and magical bedtime stories, and she quickly accepts it, dressing it up in a blond wig and bracelets chattering away as it follows her around.”
Despite this, she is justifiably annoyed when she has to change her Halloween costume from a cowgirl to a ghost in order to act as a decoy for E.T. so he can be taken to the woods to make contact. She also doesn’t appreciate her brothers condescending attitude, as is evidenced when he asks if she knows the plan by heart and if she’ll be at the look out, saying.
“I’m only pretending I’m going as a cowgirl…At the lookout. I’m not stupid, you know.”
We even see her get annoyed and kick the ground while waiting, most likely upset about missing tricks or treating. Like Sally in It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown she’s giving up something that is one of the most magical moments in a kids life, a night to put on a fun costume and get all the candy of which they could dream. To make matters worse, Michael and Elliot send their five year old sister out by herself to go to the meeting point .
When Elliot doesn’t return we see Gertie by her mother’s side as she gives a frantic police report regarding Elliot’s disappearance. It’s clear that Gertie doesn’t fully know what’s going on, as is evidenced by her response to the police officer’s question of any family trouble and she brings up the aforementioned Mexico when Mary reveals that she and her husband split up. This shows that due to her very young age, she is largely shielded from some of the harsher aspects of the world, and justifiably so.
However, as soon as her brother staggers in to the house and she hurries up under her mother’s orders to get a bath ready for Elliot, that she gets her first glimpse at a darker side to life. When Michael returns with Elliot it is discovered that bother Elliot and E.T. are not only sick, but dying. The girl is upset about it, but she is the first to assure her mother that E.T. won’t hurt her, even before Michael.
When her brother has to reluctantly carry her out, she is just as upset as Elliot, trying her best to tell her mom that E.T. is the man from the moon, as thought this could help make her feel better. That is when the team of scientist trying to track E.T. invades the house. Gertie appears somewhat frightened and confused by what is going on, but then the family a series of questions regarding E.T, and they ask if the creature lost any hair, she accurately tells them that E.T. never had any hair, thus filling part of her sick brother’s earlier role when she asked the same questions.
When E.T. flat lines it isn’t only Elliot’s frantic cries as he rips off the sensors that sets it home to the audience how painful E.T.’s death is, but Gertie’s tears as she watches and listens to the terrible loud noise as the doctors use the paddles to try and revive their alien friend. As John Lynden notes in Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals,
“Gertie watches in horror as they use electroshock on his heart to force it to beat, in vain. Though the scientists are trying to help, their efforts are perceived as invasive and violent from the children’s point of view.”
In a retrospective about the making of the film for its 20th anniversary Drew Barrymore even admitted that she didn’t even know at the time that such a machine could even exist. Yet, here they were watching as these people pounded and shocked this creature that they had come to love through the filming. In fact both Drew and Henry Thomas, the actor who played Elliot were told to treat E.T. like he was real which is what makes this moment work so well.
Later, when the doctors process and give the official declaration that E.T., she is seen on her mother’s lap watching as the doctor’s work on the alien. While the jargon the doctors use confuses her, she is still intelligent enough to ask the hardest question little kid can ask: if her beloved friend is dead. Hoping so much for it to be like in Peter Pan when she claps and believes in Fairies again to save Tinkerbell, she asks her mom if maybe they could wish for E.T. to come back. All she can do then is make that same wish when she heard the story.
Drew Berrymore said in an interview Randy Lofficer in 1988 prior to the release of the film Firestarter when asked about working on E.T., and the moment where the alien is dead,
“I started to think that he was like a brother something to me. He was really sweet and I liked him. In the scene where he was supposed to die, we really thought that it could be real.”
Unlike her oldest brother we don’t get to see her hearing the good news that E.T. is alive again. However, she is still given a very important task by her brothers as she is instructed to deliver a note to their mother regarding their absence and what just happened. However, Gertie being Gertie, it was a job she couldn’t fully be trusted with as she hurried up to her mom, note in hand saying,
“Are they gone, mama?…The boys…I’m supposed to give you this note when they’re gone.”
Her mother tells her to give it to her now, and Gertie, ever the obedient youngest member of the family hands it over. Later they are seen pulling out of the driveway in the car, and it’s Gertie who tells Keys where the boys are heading. This in turn becomes the catalyst for the movies final moments in which the government agents chase E.T., Elliot, Michael and their friends on their bikes. We don’t see Gertie beside her mom when she’s begging the government agents not to shoot the other kids, and naturally, as the one with the more passive role in the adventure she doesn’t get to take part in the magical bike flight across the sunset.
However, she and her mom, along with Keys reached the forest just as the ship arrives. While the adults watch from a distance, Gertie joins her brothers with the potted geranium to give it to E.T. as a good bye present, tears in her eyes. While Elliot may have been the one who protected him and helped hi, it was Gertie who taught him the most basic things he’d need to survive on the planet, and actually seemed to have fun with him. Elliot is losing a best friend, while Gertie is losing a playmate.
After thanking Michael for looking out for him, E.T. leaves Gertie with the parting words, “B. Good.”
It’s wise words to bestow upon the baby of the family for her to live by. While sweet, Gertie is precocious and intelligent, and could easily get herself into the wrong kind of trouble. She may be the tag-along on her brother’s adventure, but the small part she plays is key to helping them get the alien home. More importantly, she brings about some of the film’s most comedic moments through her unintentional attempts, or perhaps intentional attempts to get her brother into trouble.
As we see in an extended scene featured in the anniversary edition of E.T. in which their mom finds Gertie and Michael on Halloween night and asks the, point blank why Elliot is missing,
“Anyways, why would Elliott go to the forest? Why would he do such a thing?”
Denby, David. “The Visionary Gleam” New York Magazine. Pp 74. News Group Publications, New York, NY. Vol. 15, 24th ed. June 14, 1982.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Dir. Steven Spielberg. By Melissa Mathison. Perf. Henry Thomas,Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore, Dee Wallace, Peter Coyote, K.C. Martel, Sean Frye, C. Thomas Howell, and Erika Eleniak. Amblin Entertainment/Universal Pictures. 1982. DVD.
Hattenson, Simon. “Drew Barrymore: ‘My Mother Locked Me up in an Institution at 13. Boo Hoo! I Needed It’ .” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media Limited , 25 Oct. 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/oct/25/drew-barrymore-mother-locked-up-in-institution-interview.
Hutchinson, Sean. “20 Things You Might Not Know About E.T..” 20 Things You Might Not Know About ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ | Mental Floss, Felix Dennis, 4 Jan. 2016, mentalfloss.com/article/56256/20-things-you-might-not-know-about-et-extra-terrestrial.
Kramer, Paul. “Dealing with Emotional Trauma in and through E.T.” Children in the films of Steven Spielberg. Adrian Shober and Debbie Olson Eds. Lexington Books, Lanham, MD; 2012. Pp. 103. Print.
Lofficer, Randy, and Drew Barrymore. “Interview with Drew Barrymore.” Stephen King on Christine, 2002, www.lofficier.com/drewbarrymore.htm.
Lyden, John C. Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals. New York University Press, New York; 2002. Pp. 197. Print.
TV SPECIAL: Melendez, Bill (DIr.) It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Starring Peter Robbins, Chris Shea, Tracy Stratford, Kathy Steinberg, Chris Doran, Gabrielle DeFaria Ritter, Lisa DeFaria, Sally Dryer, Anne Altieri, and Bill Melendez. Charles M. Schulz (Writer.)Lee Mendelson/Bill Melendez Productions/United Features Syndicate. 1966.
Sragow, Michael “ ‘E.T.’ Turns Thirty” The New Yorker. Conde Nast, New York, NY. October 3, 2012. Archived. Last Accessed: September 6, 2017.
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1982. Universal Studios/Amblin Entertainment