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Series Review: “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” Offers Insight and Inspiration

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 2nd, 2023

Series poster: “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields”

Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields (Lana Wilson, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.

The two-part documentary Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, from director Lana Wilson (Miss Americana), is both a fan’s dream and a solid, in-depth look at the actor’s life and career. Following Brooke Shields from infancy to the present, the series (if we can call it that with so few episodes) examines the highs and lows of a very public existence. One may envy celebrities their wealth and fame, but not all of it is fun and games, especially if you start young. Shields proves an engaging and extremely smart subject, more than capable of telling her own story. As nonfiction biopics go, this is quality filmmaking, even as it traffics in well-worn aesthetics of the genre.

Not quite a year old, Shields first appeared on camera in 1966 for Ivory Soap ads. From there, her mother Teri never let up, pushing Brooke into more and more such work. By the 1970s, she was an established model, but it was the 1978 Louis Malle movie Pretty Baby, from which Wilson takes her title, that would launch Shields’ stardom. Unfortunately, the film, about a young girl sold into prostitution in early-20th-century New Orleans, would also commence a pattern of sexualization that would continue in the roles to come.

A young Brooke Shields in PRETTY BABY: BROOKE SHIELDS ©Hulu

These include films that would probably not be made today in the same way (with underage actors), such as The Blue Lagoon (1980) and Endless Love (1981), which venture into softcore-porn territory. And then there are the 1981 Calvin Klein jeans commercials, where Shields let us know that “nothing” came between her and her pants. As some interviewed experts remind us, one response of the dominant culture to second-wave feminism was to turn around and sexualize girls to counter the perceived notion that adult women ostensibly didn’t want to be sexy anymore. And Brooke Shields was, in some ways, the avatar of that pushback.

But she was, and is, also a lot more than that. Eventually she would put her acting on hiatus to go to Princeton in 1983, where she showed her intellectual and academic mettle, developing confidence in her own opinions and an image beyond beauty. Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields does an excellent job chronicling this rising sense of self and agency.

Brooke Shields in the 1980s in PRETTY BABY: BROOKE SHIELDS ©Hulu

There are many great commentators here, besides Shields. These include film and cultural critics, historians, and friends such as fellow actors Laura Linney and Drew Barrymore (with her own history of childhood trauma). Once journalists moved past their obsession with her virginity (the inane questions we see here, asked by male reporters, are especially grating), and once Shields graduated from Princeton and could seek new kinds of roles, adult life truly began.

Wilson takes us through the 1990s and into the 21st century, through Shields’ first marriage to tennis great Andre Agassi, her acting on Broadway, her sitcom Suddenly Susan, her second marriage and motherhood, and a lot more. All the while, we watch the development of her relationship with the mother who started it all and later descended into alcoholism and then dementia. The end result is an inspiring look at growth and survival, showing the viewer a close-up, behind-the-scenes look at a woman who has worked hard to reinvent herself, now serving as a role model to younger women today, helping them not go through what she did. This “pretty baby” grew up in the best possible way.

Brooke Shields appears in PRETTY BABY: BROOKE SHIELDS. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Getty

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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