Say that Brooke Shields being objectified during her early years would be the understatement of the century. It’s hard to understand how it all happened, or how anyone thought it was OK, through a contemporary lens – nude model at ten, labeled “world’s youngest sex symbol” at 12, appearing naked in a major Hollywood movie at 15. That she was able to gain some semblance of normality, let alone graduate from Princeton and become a powerful voice for mothers around the world, is extraordinary.
“You know, my professional life is such a lifeblood to me, because it’s the only thing I’ve ever known,” Shields says in a new documentary. “Sometimes I’m amazed that I survived all of this.”
In Pretty Baby: Brooke Shieldsa two-part documentary premiering at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and releasing later this year on Hulu, the former child star looks back on her commodification and coercion with clear eyes, finally allowed to control her own narrative.
Shields began modeling as a baby, appearing in a commercial for Ivory Soap. As she grew older, while still a child, cultural forces began to sexualize her in disturbing ways – a response, the film’s cultural critics suggest, to second-wave feminism. By the time she turned 11, Shields was cast as a child prostitute in pretty baby, directed by the late French filmmaker Louis Malle. A scene from the film shows her character presented on a literal platter and auctioned off to the highest bidder. In another, she kisses adult actor Keith Carradine.
“We had a first kiss scene. I had never kissed anyone before,” Shields recalled in the film. “I thought, oh my god, I’m supposed to know how to do this, but I don’t know how to do this. Every time Keith [Carradine] tried to do the kiss, I scrunched up my face. And Louis got mad at me.
It was a common theme: men controlling a much too young Shields. At 15, she appeared naked in the film blue lagoon, a sort of perverted fantasy film about two teenagers falling in love on a desert island. Shields, who had not had sex with a man at the time, describes it as a “reality show” where they “wanted to sell my true sexual awakening”. That year she also toured Everlasting lovedirected by the late Italian filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli, who became so frustrated with Shields during the film’s sex scene for not giving him what he wanted that he started twisting his toe.
“Zeffirelli kept grabbing my toe and, like, twisting it so I looked like… I guess ecstasy? But it was more angst than anything, because he hurt me,” she recalls.
Shields was guided by her mother Teri (her parents divorced when she was young), a bohemian “force of nature” from Newark, New Jersey, who struggled with a serious drinking problem throughout her life. Shields’ childhood friend, actress Laura Linney, describes in the film how the two hid in Shields’ bedroom as children while Teri was drunk and out of control.
“I didn’t relish that success in the ’80s. I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I made it.’ All of those things that were kind of associated with being those ‘sexy’ characters just didn’t feel like who I really was,” Shields says. “I didn’t blame my mum, but I wish she had a little more, ‘Oh, let’s see what this is going to mean. And will it come back to bite us?
Director Lana Wilson (miss american) chronicles Shields’ entire journey over the film’s 136 minutes, from her high-profile relationship with Michael Jackson (“It was very childish…we were just friends”) to sitcom success with Suddenly Suzanne and serve as a public advocate for mothers with postpartum depression, much to the chagrin of a certain high-ranking Scientologist.
One of the most gruesome parts of the doc involves an episode involving photographer Gary Gross – an apt name if there ever was one. When Shields was ten years old, Gross, who was considered a friend of the family, had taken pictures of her naked in a bathtub which were published in a book by Rizzoli. By the time she turned 16 and became a global superstar, Gross attempted to sell the photos. So Shields and his mother sued him in a New York court.
Shields, who was still just 16 at the time, was cross-examined on the stand for two days and reduced to tears. At one point, Gross’ attorney even asked her, “You’re having a great time posing nude at that time, aren’t you?” (She was 10.) To make matters worse, the court sided with Gross, saying he owned those nude images of a child and had the right to do with them what he wanted. thought fit.
“I was hurt more by the breach of trust and friendship than I have ever been uncomfortable with the nature of the photo,” says Shields. “It’s the way I was treated by the men associated with it all. It was like low rent, lower class – there was no integrity in it, and to me it was so annoying and hurtful. I mean, my entire life, over and over and over and over, was, ‘That’s a pretty face.’ “He’s a sex symbol.” And that always stuck with me because the kind of nerdy person who was creative and smart was at the core of who I was.
By the time she had graduated from high school, Shields had regained control of her life. She went to Princeton (where she graduated), wrote books, and became an advocate for teenage girls.
“It didn’t really cross my mind to have my own opinions for a long time. I thought, listen to everyone and take what they say,” says Shields. “I spent my life owing people things and doing what they wanted. Eventually I asked myself: who will I be if I don’t allow this anymore?
After graduation, however, she found that film roles had dried up. She says she was “vulnerable” and that around this time she was sexually assaulted by an anonymous film producer under the guise of dating for a role. It’s a story she’s never shared publicly before.
“I just completely froze,” she shares. “My only ‘no’ should have been enough. And I just thought, ‘Stay alive, and get out.’ And I just closed it. And god knows I knew how to dissociate myself from my body. I had practiced that.
She continues, “I wanted to erase everything from my mind and body and continue on the path I was on. And the system never came to help me, you know? So I just had to get stronger on my own.
And she did. Shields discovered she had a knack for comedy, first with an appearance on Friends as Joey’s stalker-girlfriend, then with his own hit NBC sitcom Suddenly Suzanne, which ran for four seasons. She fell in love with tennis player Andre Agassi, who was shown to be jealous and controlling, then found true happiness with comedian Chris Henchy, whom she married in 2001.
After the birth of their child, Shields became the public face of postpartum depression, writing a book and appearing on talk shows to discuss it, giving voice to mothers around the world who had experienced similar issues. . Shields even helped pass the Mothers Act – a landmark piece of legislation that dedicated additional resources to help mothers with postpartum depression. His story is, overall, a remarkable story of resilience.
“I think I decided to say, ‘You all think I can’t do this, but just look at me,'” Shields says. “And I think the same thing was happening in college as well. You know, ‘She’s not going to be serious.’ “She’s not going to be so bright.” But I thought, ‘You know what? Not only will I surprise them, but I will surprise myself.