“Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” starts with Brooke Shields, the 57-year-old titular actress, saying she learned to compartmentalize at an early age.
The busy sets, interviews, magazine photo shoots and auditions were stressful enough – add a mother struggling with alcohol to the mix and that sets the stage for a young girl to grow up fast.
The documentary moves through Brooke’s modeling and film career, which began well before she was a teen. Brooke received pronounced recognition when she landed the leading role in “Pretty Baby” (1978) at age 12. In it, which the documentary references in its title, Brooke played a child prostitute, and this led to heavy bouts of controversy.
Critics grilled Teri Shields, Brooke’s mother, for allowing her daughter to take roles considered inappropriate for Brooke’s age. The entertainment and media industries seemingly cashed in on Brooke’s success while simultaneously shaming her for making the films, and Teri did her best to juggle the situation. No one with experience stepped up to defend Brooke – that was left to Teri to navigate.
During a screening for the documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Director Lana Wilson said she didn’t know much about Brooke before taking on the project, but upon meeting, Wilson continued, interest began forming.
Wilson said Brooke handed her a hard drive containing over one thousand pieces of archival footage that Teri had collected over decades – photos, commercials, and film and TV appearances. Differences in how men and women handled public appearances, depicted in the footage, Wilson said, pushed her to pursue the story.
For example, in a clip from the film, interviewers questioned Brooke and her mother about poses and comments in a jean ad for Calvin Klein (“What comes between me and my Calvin Klein?” Brooke asks. “Nothing”), but no such thing happened to the creators of the commercial.
In another example, “Endless Love” (1981) Director Franco Zeffirelli admitted to twisting Brooke’s toe to get a reaction of passion from her in a scene. Brooke, 16 at the time, had to laugh it off, even though years later she said the incident created angst.
The documentary’s timeline of events, encompassing the successes and difficult moments in Brooke’s life, are easy to follow, and it’s rather interesting and inspiring to hear Brooke tell her side of the story.
One great success was Brooke’s graduation from Princeton University, where Brooke in the film said she started thinking for herself, and where a professor told her to “have faith in her own hypothesis.”
And conversely, in hearing Brooke speak about how she coped with postpartum depression and her mother’s alcohol use – as well as recounting when she was raped by an unnamed man with whom she had a working relationship – the documentary sheds light on Brooke’s struggles behind the scenes, and by extension, her valor too.
Director Wilson said the questions of the documentary come down to what is and isn’t empowering, how far we’ve come (or haven’t) and what it means to share personal experiences in the modern digital age.
In exploring those questions, and Brooke’s life, the film succeeds.
“Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” will be available to stream on Hulu later this year.