Barrymore’s professional career began at 11 months, when she auditioned for a dog food commercial. She was nipped by her canine co-star, to which she merely laughed and was hired for the job. After her film debut with a small role in Altered States (1980), she played Gertie in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), directed by Steven Spielberg. He felt that she had the right imagination for her role after she impressed him with a story that she led a punk rock band. E.T. is the highest-grossing film of the 1980s and made her one of the most famous child actors of the time. For her work, she won a Young Artist Award for Best Supporting Actress.
In the 1984 horror film adaptation of Stephen King’s 1980 novel Firestarter, Barrymore played a girl with pyrokinesis who becomes the target of a secret government agency known as The Shop. The same year, she played a young girl divorcing her famous parents in Irreconcilable Differences, for which she was nominated for her first Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress. In a review in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert stated, “Barrymore is the right actress for this role precisely because she approaches it with such grave calm.”
Barrymore endured a troubled youth and continued to act intermittently during the decade. She starred in the 1985 anthology horror film Cat’s Eye, also written by Stephen King. The film received positive reviews and Barrymore was nominated for a Young Artist Award for Best Leading Young Actress. She starred alongside Jeff Bridges and Alice Krige in the 1989 romantic comedy See You in the Morning. Vincent Canby of The New York Times criticized the “fashionable phoniness” of the film, but positively singled out Barrymore for her performance. After her twelve-day rehab treatment at ASAP, Barrymore starred in Far from Home (1989) as a teenager who gets stranded with her father in the small town in a remote part of the desert. The film went largely unnoticed by audiences and received negative reviews from critics, who dismissed the sexual portrayal of her role.