They don’t make ‘em like they used to, and sometimes that’s a very good thing. Take the 1978 movie Pretty Baby for instance. Amidst the controversy, what’s often lost is that it’s a non-sensationalized psychological study of a child prostitute.
What it’s actually remembered for is that Brooke Shields was a mere 11 years old when she took on this role, and the movie matter-of-factly included several shots of her nude. This had implications that the young actress was able to fully grasp at her age, and it’s difficult to fathom how the filmmakers could’ve possibly been unaware of this.
The answer likely lies in the fact that they clearly cared far more about what they were trying to accomplish than the well-being of their young lead.
It was a pattern that would continue for much of Brooke Shields’s career, and the documentary Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields is a welcome indicator that Shields is finally gaining a sense of control over the narrative of her life. Anyone with a passing familiarity of the last few years of her career could tell this has been building for a while, but the present moment has given her an especially clear view, with Shields concluding, “It’s the first time in 56 years that I’m actually just owning my identity fully.”
Chilling Celebrity Documentary
Shields lacked famous parents, but her beauty and her ambitious mother’s efforts landed her in the public eye when she was all of 11 months old in an Ivory Soap ad. Uncomfortable subjects are going to be a given in any kind of exploration of Shields’s life, and the documentary openly discusses a few things about the times which molded her that we would likely rather forget: how her 70’s childhood saw the rise of the feminist movement, which also coincided with the open sexualization of little girls in a fashion which had been absent in the days of very adult, curvy starlets such as Marilyn Monroe.
As the doc tells it, if women were going to be difficult, the message was that they were to be replaced with far more vulnerable, malleable little girls.
By the time Shields was going on talk shows, male talk show hosts were sitting far too close, and looking at her in all the wrong ways as they asked about all the attention she was receiving. Is she “enjoying it?” And isn’t she an “exquisite looking,” “pretty, pretty girl?” It’s nauseating, but Shields is no one’s victim in spite of being exploited again and again in the film and fashion industry that she made more profitable by her presence.
Even as Shields tearfully recounts some of her more painful moments, including a trial involving nude photos where her public image was viciously attacked in a disturbing example of how the culture puts teenage girls through the public wringer, she is quick to share that some of the precedents she set were on her terms. Sex symbols aren’t supposed to go to Princeton, but Shields earned her degree in spite of the obstacles, she allowed herself to explore comedy, which would quickly become a key part of the next phase of her career.
It’s hard to picture a director more capable of piecing so many complex pieces of a story together than Lana Wilson, who tackled tough emotional subject matter in After Tiller and another famous woman grappling with the meeting of personal and political in Miss Americana, even if it only scratched the surface of the Taylor Swift’s world and persona.
What makes the difference is Brooke Shields herself, whose natural charisma is enhanced by her decision to open herself up. It also doesn’t hurt that plenty of the people who know her best contribute their own takes, along with former child star Drew Barrymore.
What many of the reviews will and are focusing on are the more violent aspects of her story, including the rape she never publicly revealed. But there is an intimacy and openness in Brooke Shields: Pretty Baby not often seen in today’s celebrity documentaries, and there are few who won’t be able to relate to the complex relationship she had with her late mother, who grappled with alcoholism throughout her life, sacrificed for her daughter, and also sometimes played an unwitting role in her exploitation.
The real highlights are when the documentary goes behind the Wikipedia points approach and showcases the process behind some of her biggest pop culture moments, including her decision to speak publicly about her postpartum depression and the changes that she helped usher in afterwards.
Wonder of wonders, at times it even deviates from them entirely in moments when Shields discusses her films Pretty Baby and Blue Lagoon with her own daughters, and how it compares to modern depictions of teen sexuality in Euphoria.
Anyone expecting a triumphant outlook for the future will be a bit disappointed, since Shields sees little evidence that depictions or expectations for young stars have changed much in the decades she’s been working, or the grim conclusions she came to after she got her degree: “That’s also not appealing to Hollywood. An actress who can think for herself.”
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that there are at least more empowering messages to counter it, and the importance of female agency is now a public discussion. And if Shields can find her way to health and normalcy after years of abuse and gaslighting, there’s a good chance others will see a glimmer of something like hope for themselves.
Rating: 8/10 SPECS
Brooke Shields: Pretty Baby is set for release in 2-parts on Hulu later this year.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Andrea Thompson is a writer, editor, and film critic who is also the founder and director of the Film Girl Film Festival.
She is a member of the Chicago Indie Critics and runs her own site, A Reel Of One's Own, and has written for RogerEbert.com, The Spool, The Mary Sue, Inverse, and The Chicago Reader. She has no intention of becoming any less obsessed with cinema, comics, or nerdom in general.