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‘Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields’ Review: A Documentary of Fascinating Depth Holds Our Voyeuristic Image Culture Up to the Light

Lana Wilson's accomplished film traces how Brooke Shields' career was at the forefront of our culture's sexualization of girls, and shows what it was like for her to live a life inside that image.

Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

There are times when you see a documentary about a subject you think you know well, and the fact that you do almost becomes part of what’s gratifying about it. It’s like seeing a movie drama you loved a second time; you go deeper and savor the nuances. “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” is like that. It’s a 2-hour-and-13-minute documentary that unfurls the saga, soup to nuts, of Brooke Shields, starting from when she did her very first commercial, at 11 months old, right up through where she is today, at 57. It covers her rise as a child advertising model, how she prospered professionally under the wing of her doting but troubled alcoholic manager mother, Teri, how she was sexualized in movies, starting at age 12, in “Pretty Baby” (1978), and then at 15, in “The Blue Lagoon” (1980), and what it was like for her to be at the center of a global gaze.

The arc of the tale is more than familiar. Yet “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields,” directed by Lana Wilson (who was at Sundance three years ago with the Taylor Swift doc “Miss Americana”), is a supremely well-crafted piece of conventional documentary portraiture. It invests each chapter of Brooke Shields’ life with more thought and depth and archival coverage than we’ve seen before, and it never loses sight of the larger story it’s telling: that this is really about how the American image culture elevated the marketing of sexuality into a morally murky and sensationalist art form, one that had real-world repercussions — for Shields, who was at the center of it all, and for us — that the image makers never gave a damn about.

You could certainly say that Shields was someone who was put through a voyeuristic pop-image machine and emerged as a survivor. Yet she found a way to sail through most of it with pluck and humor and grace. “Pretty Baby” reminds you what a winning star she was, even as its rigorous (and never reductive or prudish) look at how her image was used casts a fascinating spell of social resonance.

Brooke Shields, observes one of the film’s many talking heads, “is a nuclear version of what it is like to be judged by your appearance.” The movie captures the existential quality of that experience: that what she felt inside and what she projected outside could almost have been on two different planets. The ripe sculptured smile, the glowing eyes, the delicate cleft chin, and (her most distinctive feature) those dagger eyebrows: they all added up to what Pauline Kael called the “girl with a woman’s face.” “There was a sense that she was the woman of the future,” says her childhood friend Laura Linney.

Right up through the ’60s, says Karina Longworth, Hollywood was still working off the model of Marilyn Monroe: a curvy, voluptuous, and adult sexuality. The documentary makes the point that the sexualization of young girls that began in the ’70s came about directly in response to the rise of second-wave feminism. It was as if male culture had retreated into finding new objects of desire who were powerless, submissive, unthreatening.

Shields, as a model, was at the forefront of all this. Her mother, Teri, who died in 2012, says that she always knew Brooke would be a star — which, of course, is another way of saying that she was dead-set on making her one. Teri was an upwardly mobile firecracker from Newark, New Jersey, who raised Brooke as a single mom. We see Barbara Walters ask Teri, “Can’t someone say to you that you are exploiting the sensuality of a child?” Her answer is: “If that’s all I was doing, probably, yes. But that’s not all I’m doing with Brooke, or what Brooke is doing.” Teri was a supremely self-possessed stage mother who tried to make a life for Brooke and who didn’t plan anything out. They lived job to job, improving their lifestyle as Brooke became more successful, but the calling card of Brooke’s image was what drove it all. She did TV commercials for Band-Aids, shampoo, fabric softener, and what shines through all of them is her personality — an effortless perky verve.

Around the time that she was 10, the way that Shields was photographed began to change. She was pictured in less clothing, or wearing veils and spangly dresses, with adult make-up and a “pout.” Some of the photographs look freakish, almost the prototype for what we now see in the little-girl beauty pageants that have become a perverse staple of America.

It was “Pretty Baby,” the scandalous 1978 Louis Malle film, that changed the trajectory for Brooke Shields. It was a true-life drama, set in 1917 in the Storyville district of New Orleans, based on the lives of the American photographer Ernest Bellocq and a young girl who had been forced into prostitution by her mother. For Malle’s first American film, the studio wanted 14-year-old Jodie Foster, fresh off of “Taxi Driver,” to be the star. But Malle insisted on 12-year-old Brooke. She gave a genuine performance, inhabiting the role with a theatrical spark, but “Pretty Baby” is not a good movie. It’s remote and inert, as Malle’s chic refusal to judge what he shows us plays as a dramatic copout masquerading as moral ambiguity.

Yet it was a shocking film, and maybe a dangerous one. (There’s a sequence in which Shields’ character is carried around like Cleopatra as her virginity is auctioned off.) From the moment it exploded into a Felliniesque paparazzi circus at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival, “Pretty Baby” made headlines around the world for the iconography of what it was about: a 12-year-old girl being openly eroticized.

“From that moment on,” says Brooke, “I was no longer just a model who was an actress. I became a focal point for so many things, good and bad.” The film was singularly controversial, fueling a thousand debates like one we see on “The Phil Donahue Show.” Teri Shields got a lot of flack for allegedly having exploited her daughter. But, of course, she was taking the heat for something that was becoming systemic: our own culpability in the transformation of entertainment into thinly veiled exploitation. (Four years later, we’d have the peephole comedy “Porky’s” as the new porn-flavored edge of mainstream youth culture.)

Brooke went on to “The Blue Lagoon,” shot in Fiji in 1980, when she was 15. They shot for four months; it was far easier for Brooke being on a movie set, where she got to live in a hut, then it was managing her dissolute momager/mother. But here’s a paradox: “The Blue Lagoon,” with its two-kids-cast-away-on-a-tropical-island love story, was a more “innocent” movie than “Pretty Baby,” but although it was marketed as a fairy tale for teenagers, there’s a way that it was even more exploitative. It was conceived, in a sense, as calendar-art transgressive image candy for the multiplex — like the story of Adam and Eve as shot by David Hamilton. Says Brooke about it now, “They wanted to make it a reality show. They wanted to sell my actual sexual awakening.”

The third act in the Forbidden Image Drama of Brooke Shields wasn’t a movie but a series of commercials: the television campaign for Calvin Klein jeans, shot by Richard Avedon, that she was featured in when she was 16, such as the commercial where she says it’s time to “put away childish things,” because “I’m ready for Calvins,” and then ends the ad by sucking her thumb. Her performances in several of the commercials were astonishingly witty — it was the most accomplished acting she’d done. Yet the commercials, even more than “Pretty Baby,” became controversial and were banned in some markets.

Klein himself offered no apologies. He was proud of his bad-boy image and thought the commercials were legitimately subversive. They caused a change in the culture, doing as much as anything to jump-start the ’80s fashion revolution (we see high-school girls interviewed at the time who say that they spent thousands of dollars on their wardrobes; and this was in 1981). Brooke’s association with Klein also marked her entré into the post-Warholian celebrity maelstrom, the ongoing Studio 54 of it all. She was omnipresent, on TV and on red carpets. She’d become a one-word icon: Brooke.    

Shields tells us that she felt dangerously dissociated during the filming of the big sex scene in “Endless Love,” the torpid teen romance she made in 1981, and watching it you can tell. She’s there but not there. She needed to get off the merry-go-round, and did when she got into Princeton, shattering the idea that she was all beauty and no brains. The first half of “Pretty Baby” is a kind of biography-meets-empathetic-essay that lets us touch the alienation Shields felt as her image became something in the world that was, more than once, used against her. (When she and her mother sued her family associate Gary Gross for trying to sell nude photographs of her that had been shot for a Rizzoli coffee-table book, she was put on the stand for two days and accused of marketing herself as a “Lolita.”)

The film’s second half charts how her sense of self and identity began to come together after that. The break she took for college saved her life even if it hurt her career. After four years away, she was no longer a hot commodity, and in the youth-comedy boom of the early ’80s a new generation of stars had risen up. But she found her way back. The film covers her broken marriage to Andre Agassi, the friendship with Michael Jackson that she describes as “very childlike” (it faded around the time he implied that they were dating), the traumatic extremity of her postpartum depression, her battle with a cluelessly self-righteous Tom Cruise over the drugs she took for it, and her harrowing account of being sexually assaulted by a producer she thought was offering her a job. That her initial instinct was to blame herself strikes the saddest note in the film.

We also follow the triumphant spike of her career when she was tapped to star in the sitcom “Suddenly Susan,” a show that allowed her to be what she was probably always meant to be: a smart-mouth comedian. And we see her with her own family, where the impromptu dinner conversation that takes place between herself and her teenage daughters about her two most famous movies, which they have never seen, is touching and revelatory. We perceive, in their plucky wisdom about it all, how the world has changed.

At certain points, the documentary lingers too repetitively on how the world saw Brooke in terms of her image but didn’t have enough interest in (or knowledge of) who she really was. We think: True enough, but that’s also the intrinsic nature of celebrity culture, a hall of mirrors that reflects surfaces. Yet by the end of “Pretty Baby,” you do know who the real Brooke is. The film attains a cumulative power that’s quite moving. Yes, we knew the story before, but here we feel the journey that Shields lived. We pass through the mirror of an overly eroticized, overly unreal celebrity culture and can see what’s on the other side.

‘Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields’ Review: A Documentary of Fascinating Depth Holds Our Voyeuristic Image Culture Up to the Light

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 20, 2023. Running time: 136 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) A Hulu, ABC News Studios release of a Bed By 8, Matador Content production, in association with Drifting Cloud Productions. Producers: Christine O’Malley, Jack Turner. Executive producers: Ali Wentworth, Alyssa Mastromonaco, George Stephanopoulos, Jay Peterson, Todd Lubin, Jacqueline Glover, Jennifer Joseph, Lana Wilson.
  • Crew: Director: Lana Wilson. Camera: Emily Topper, John Benam. Editors: Sara Newens, Anne Yao. Music: Todd Griffin.
  • With: Brooke Shields, Laura Linney, Scaachi Koul, Jean Kilbourne, Jerry Alexander, Gavin de Becker, Lionel Richie.