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Fourteen-year-old Diana Barrymore cowers under the control of her domineering mother, famed poet and socialite Michael Strange, and longs to see her father, actor John Barrymore, with whom she has had no contact for ten years. One day, Diana notes the kindness shown to her by her mother's editor, Gerold Frank, but is soon distracted by Michael's anger at the interception of a letter Diana has written to her father, asking to visit. Although Michael warns that John, whose career as a matinee idol has been nearly ruined by his infamous womanizing and alcoholism, will not respond, she finally allows Diana to send the letter, and John invites the girl onto his boat. There, Diana glows under her father's warm attention, but, after years of worship from afar, is unable to contain herself from talking incessantly. By nightfall, when a boat full of John's "friends" approaches and they urge him to join them, a drunken John jumps into the water and swims to them, offering Diana the use of the boat. Four years later, Diana has grown into a lovely, sophisticated woman, but the neglect she has suffered has caused her to emulate her father in an attempt to be closer to him. To this end, she decides to become an actress, despite her mother's exhortations that the press will exploit her for her famous name. On opening night on Broadway, Diana's poor acting skills deter neither her loyal boyfriend, Lincoln Forrester, nor the audience members, who are eager to see another Barrymore on stage. As a result, she is offered a Hollywood contract, which her mother allows her to sign only in exchange for agreeing not to live with John, whose drunken escapades have kept him from working for four years. In Los Angeles, the press greet her rapturously, especially after John welcomes her at the train station, providing excellent fodder for the fan magazines. He brings her to his mansion, and although he has pawned all of the furniture to support his alcoholism, he has outfitted a beautiful room upstairs in the hopes that she will move in with him. She resists, but is won over when he vows that he is through searching for an elusive achievement and wants only her. She is happy living with him, though she is wary of both his burly servant, Walter Gerhardt, and the huge eagle John keeps in a massive cage in the living room. Before appearing in her first role, under the tutelage of Imperial Pictures producer Charlie Snow, Diana struggles to learn her lines and disregard the insulting comments of the hairdresser. A romance soon blossoms with fellow actor Vincent Bryant, who kisses her one night but then must leave to spend several weeks on location in San Francisco. After bidding him goodbye, Diana returns home to find John in a drunken rage, with bottles smashed and his bird loose in the house. Gerhardt, who has been hired expressly for this purpose, gently tells her to leave before he knocks John out and puts him to sleep. Diana is horrified but remains supportive, urging John the next morning to try to quit drinking. He agrees, and a month later, on the night of Diana's movie's press premiere, he appears and charms the press corps with his debonair stories about the early days of filmmaking. Impressed with his charisma, Charlie offers to recommend John for the role of Sheridan Whiteside in the upcoming production of The Man Who Came to Dinner . At home, flush with enthusiasm, John, who remembers Michael as the only "real woman" he ever loved, decides to call the poet and invite her to visit them. She is not at home, however, and by the time she calls back, John has taken several drinks to calm his nerves. Sensing that he is drunk, Michael sadly hangs up on him, sending John into a rage during which he blames Diana for wanting to keep him to herself. She slaps him and leaves the house, despite his quiet plea that she stay. Weeks later, Diana's performance is criticized at a preview screening, and on the same evening, Gerhardt informs her that John, who has been drinking steadily since she left, has entered the hospital. Diana rushes there but is too late to see him before he dies. Distraught and blaming herself for his death, Diana turns to alcohol, and when Vince returns from San Francisco, he finds her passed out. She begs him to make love to her, and soon after, the two are married. Although they are happy, Vince's budding career takes him away frequently and Diana, unable to be alone, grows fiercely possessive. When Vince disregards her entreaties, she resorts to throwing raucous parties in his absence. At one, she meets rapacious tennis player John Howard, who encourages her to drink, carouse and renege on her Imperial contract. When Vince returns to find the two together, he leaves in a fury, and Diana immediately marries John. Soon, they are penniless and full of mutual distaste, and with nowhere else to go, they arrive at Michael's, where Linc is distressed to see Diana's drunken state. After a month of continual drinking, Michael throws the couple out, at which point John sadistically hits a tennis ball at Diana's face. To support herself, Diana is forced to perform at summer theater, where her name is enough of an attraction to earn her a role. When she shows up drunk, young actor Robert Wilcox shields her from the manager and helps her to sober up for the production. Although he warns her that he is a recovering alcoholic and averse to commitment, Diana cannot keep herself from seducing him. Soon, they are married and miserable, and when Bob hears that Michael has died and left no money, he becomes abusive. Diana resorts to performing impressions at a girlie show, but cannot hold even that job, stripping off her clothes to gain the audience's approval. When she destroys a pharmacy window in the street, she is hospitalized. There, Gerold Frank finds her and asks her to write her memoirs with him when she is released. He gives her his address in Manhattan, stating that she will have a chance to discover herself through writing about her background. Although she is doubtful, she clings to this opportunity, and upon leaving the institution, attempts to take the bus to Gerold's house. With no money, however, she is forced to walk the fifty blocks, and along the way, stops to ask a wealthy man for change for the bus. Upon realizing that the man is Linc, Diana runs in shame, but when he follows and embraces her, she begs him not to look at her, fearing that the years and drinking have robbed her of all beauty and dignity. To allay her worries, Linc doffs his hat, revealing the bald pate underneath. Diana laughs with pleasure, but despite her gratefulness and knowledge that Linc is a truly kind man, she has finally realized that she must find herself before she can find love, so she tells him she must go. After lending her bus fare, Linc urges Diana to write to him, then watches as she heads off to Gerold's.