The movie Beautiful Baby sheds light on Brooke Shields’ contentious years as a young child star. There are many examples of young girls being sexualized by media, but Brooke Shields became a poster child for the practice, literally and figuratively, while inviting questions about stage mothers. “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” pulls back the curtain on that period, in a two-part Hulu documentary that perhaps inevitably frontloads most of its juiciest and most disturbing material.
The title comes from the movie that capsulized Shields’ upbringing, “Pretty Baby,” a provocative 1978 film by director Louis Malle that cast Shields as the child of a New Orleans prostitute and, among other things, featured the brothel auctioning off her virginity.
Putting her in such sexualized scenes was controversial at the time, and the documentary’s director, Lana Wilson, presents talk-show footage of Shields’ mother and manager, Teri, defending those decisions, saying of her photogenic daughter, “I just knew she’d be a star.”
The idea of stardom coming at a price is almost a cliché, but in Shields’ case, the path to becoming “the most-photographed woman in the world,” as she’s later described, was accompanied by a childhood spent posing for extreme closeups of her face at modeling shoots and on movie sets. As longtime friend Laura Linney recalls, “She was a young girl in an all-adult world,” serving as the principal breadwinner in her home and frequently having to be responsible for her alcoholic mother.
Shields’ story can’t and shouldn’t be viewed in a vacuum, and there are echoes of child actors like Evan Rachel Woods and Soleil Moon Frye’s experiences as presented in their recent documentary memoirs “Phoenix Rising” and “Kid 90,” respectively.
Still, her level of exposure and the way interviewers treated her, was close to unparalleled, from shooting the coming-of-age tale “The Blue Lagoon” at 15 to her ubiquitous Calvin Klein ad campaign. The film also contextualizes that through the prism of the feminist movement, and a media culture that increasingly turned its eye turned toward girls as women pushed for greater agency and independence.
The second half isn’t quite as strong, delving into Shields’ friendship with Michael Jackson, dropping out of show business to attend college and her relationship with and marriage to tennis star Andre Agassi, which she characterizes as trading “one controlling personality for another” after living in her mother’s orbit,
Still, part two does contain the project’s most headline-grabbing revelation, detailing Shields’ experience when she was raped by an anonymous Hollywood figure in a hotel room, an incident she shared at the time with security expert Gavin de Becker.
Shields also talks at length about motherhood and her struggles with postpartum depression, while engaging in a particularly illuminating discussion with her daughters about the propriety of her early movies, which brings the story back, in essence, to where it began.
“Sometimes I’m amazed that I survived any of it,” Shields muses near the outset.
“Pretty Baby” isn’t always pretty in chronicling everything that Shields endured, but in terms of placing a spotlight on the media excesses that surrounded and defined her rise to fame, it is, with the benefit of hindsight, pretty amazing indeed.