February 5, 2023


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‘Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields’: Holds our image culture to the light

8 min read

There are times when you watch a documentary about a subject you think you know well, and what you do almost becomes a part of it which is satisfying. It’s like watching a movie drama you liked a second time; You go deeper and enjoy the subtleties. “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” is like that. It is a 2-hour-13-minute documentary that covers the story of Brooke Shields, from Nutty, when she did her first commercial at the age of 11 months, to her rise as a child advertising model, to how She thrived professionally under her doting but troubled alcoholic manager mother, Terri, how she was sexually assaulted at age 12 in “Pretty Baby” (1978), and then at age 15, in “The Blue Lagoon” (1980), and worldwide attention. What it was like for him to be at the center.

The story arc 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 masterful 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 never loses sight of the larger story it’s telling: It’s really about how American image culture has enhanced the marketing of sexuality into a morally murky and sensationalist art. Turning into forms that had real-world repercussions — for Shields, who was at the center of it, and for us — that the illustrators never gave a damn about.

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

Brooke Shields, one of the film’s many talking heads observed, “is a nuclear version of what it’s like to be judged by your looks.” The movie captures the existential quality of what that experience was like for him: that what he felt on the inside and what he assumed on the outside could almost be on two different planets. The ripely sculpted smile, the bright eyes, the finely cleft chin, and (her most distinctive feature) those dagger eyebrows: they all add up to what Pauline Kael called “a girl with a woman’s face”. “There was a sense that she was the woman of the future,” says Laura Linney, her childhood friend.

Karina Longworth says Hollywood in the ’60s was still working from the Marilyn Monroe model: a curvy, voluptuous and mature sex. The documentary highlights the fact that the sexualization of young girls that began in the 70s came as a direct response to the rise of second-wave feminism. It is as if male culture retreated in search of new objects of powerless, submissive, nonthreatening desire.

Shields, as the model, was at the forefront of all this. Her mother, Terri, who died in 2012, said she always knew Brooke would be a star — which is, of course, another way of saying that she was done making her. Terry was an upwardly mobile firefighter from Newark, New Jersey, who raised Brooke as a single mother. We see Barbara Walters ask Terry, “Can’t anyone tell you that you’re exploiting a child’s sexuality?” His answer is: “If I did, probably, yes. But it’s not what I’m doing with Brooke or what Brooke is doing.” Terri was an absolute self-sufficient stage mother who tried to make a life for Brooke and who didn’t plan on doing anything. They worked jobs, their lives changing as Brooke became more successful. Thrive, 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 it all is her personality—an effortless swagger.

Around the age of 10, Shields’ approach to photography began to change. She was depicted scantily clad, or wearing a veil and spangly clothing, with adult make-up and a “pout”. Some of the photographs look strange, which we now see in the little-girl beauty pageants that have become a perverted staple in America.

It was “Pretty Baby,” the 1978 Louis Male film, that changed Brooke Shields’ trajectory. It was a true-life drama, set in the Storyville district of New Orleans in 1917, based on the life of American photographer Ernest Belloc and a young woman forced into prostitution by her mother. For Mal’s first American film, the studio wanted 14-year-old Jodie Foster to star in “Taxi Driver.” But Male insisted on 12-year-old Brooke. He gives a genuine performance, inhabiting the role with a theatrical spark, but “Pretty Baby” is not a good movie. It’s distant and inert, as Mal’s flamboyant refusal to judge what he shows us acts as a dramatic copout as moral ambiguity.

Yet it was a terrible film, and perhaps a dangerous one. (There’s a sequence in which Shields’ character is carried around like Cleopatra while her virginity is auctioned off.) From the moment it exploded into a Felinesque paparazzi circus at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival, “Pretty Baby” made headlines around the world for its iconography. : A 12-year-old girl is becoming openly erotic.

“From that moment on,” says Brooke, “I was no longer a model who was an actress. I became the center of a lot of things, good and bad.” The film was singularly controversial, sparking a thousand controversies like the ones we see on “The Phil Donahue Show.” Terry Shields got a lot of flak for allegedly exploiting his daughter. But, of course, he was taking heat for something that was becoming systemic: entertainment. It’s our own fault for turning it into thinly veiled exploitation. (Four years later, we’ll have the peephole comedy “Porky’s” as the new porn-tastic edge of mainstream youth culture.)

Brooke went on to film “The Blue Lagoon” in Fiji in 1980, when she was 15. They shot for four months; It was much easier for Brooke to be on the movie set, where she got to live in a hut, then it was managing her disintegrating 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” film than “Pretty Baby,” despite how it was marketed. A fairy tale for teenagers, there’s a way it could have been more exploitative. It was conceived, in a sense, as calendar-art transgressive image candy for the multiplex – like the Adam and Eve story shot by David Hamilton. Brooke says of it now, “They wanted to make it a reality show. They wanted to sell my real sexual awakening.”

Brooke Shields’ third act in the drama Forbidden Image was not a film but a series of commercials: a television campaign for Calvin Klein jeans shot by Richard Avedon, in which she appeared at the age of 16, such as the commercial in which she says it’s time to “put away the childish things”. , because “I’m ready for Calvin” and then ends the ad by sucking his thumb. Her performances in several commercials were amazingly funny – some of the most accomplished she’s ever done. Yet the ads, even more so than “Pretty Baby,” became controversial and were banned in some markets.

Klein himself offered no apology. He was proud of his bad-boy image and thought the ads were legitimately subversive. They changed the culture, as much as they did to usher in the fashion revolution of the ’80s (we see interviews with high school girls at the time who say they spent thousands of dollars on their clothes; and this was in 1981), Brooke’s association with Klein also made her Marks entry into the post-Warholian celebrity maelstrom, which is the ongoing Studio 54. She was ubiquitous on TV and on the red carpet. She would become a one-word icon: Brooke.

Shields tells us she felt dangerously isolated while filming the big sex scene in “Endless Love,” her 1981 torpid teen romance, and you can tell by watching it. He is there but not there. She had to get off the merry-go-round, and she did when she got into Princeton, shattering the notion that she was all beauty and no brains. The first half of “Pretty Baby” is a kind of biography-meets-sympathetic-essay that allows us to touch on the isolation Shields feels when her image becomes something in the world that has been used against her more than once. (When she and her mother sued family associate Gary Gross for trying to sell her nude photos for a Rizzoli coffee-table book, she was put on the stand for two days and accused of marketing herself as a “Lolita.” happened.”)

The second half of the film charts how his sense of self and identity begins to coalesce. The break he took for college hurt his career but saved his life. After four years away, he was no longer a hot commodity, and a new generation of stars emerged in the youth-comedy boom of the early ’80s. But he found his way back. The film describes her broken marriage to Andre Agassi, her friendship with Michael Jackson as “very childish” (it faded when she implied they were dating), and the harrowing details of being sexually assaulted by a producer she thought was hiring her. was offering That his initial instinct was to blame himself is the film’s saddest note.

We follow the triumphant re-spiking of his career when he’s tapped to star in the sitcom “Suddenly Susan,” a show that allows him to be what he’s probably always been meant to be: a smart-mouth comedian. We also see him with his own family, and the impromptu dinner conversation between him and his teenage daughters about two of his most famous movies, which they’ve never seen, is touching and revealing. We understand, in their indomitable wisdom, how the world has changed in all these matters.

At certain points, the documentary dwells too repetitively on how the world saw Brooke in terms of her image but didn’t have enough interest (or knowledge) of who she really was. We think: True enough, but it’s also the nature of our celebrity culture, a mirror that reflects the surface. Yet by the end of “Pretty Baby,” you know who the real Brooke is. The film gains a growing energy that is quite moving. Yes, we knew the story before, but here we are to feel Journey Shields bus. We pass through the mirror of an overly sexualized, overly unrealistic celebrity culture and see what’s on the other side.

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