‘Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields’ Review: A Wide-Ranging Documentary Gives Its Subject The Gift Of Agency
Brooke Shields was pretty, even as a baby. Everyone knew it at the time, from her mother and manager, Teri Shields, to the grown men who were eager to get her nude in front of a camera from the age of ten to the legions of fans who felt a sense of ownership over her body. In the new two-part Hulu documentary “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields,” Shields’ beauty frames the story like a sort of creation myth, at once simple and strange; she was born beautiful, and from that beauty sprung an entire world. Over the course of more than two hours, “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” attempts to untangle that mythic quality and its potent effects and is mostly successful in a documentary that’s both necessary and, at times, surprisingly vague.
“Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” covers a wide range of topics from Shields’ life, including her controversial career as an often-sexualized teen actor, her time in college, her two marriages, her experiences with post-partum depression, her comedic reinvention, and a painful reckoning with her mother’s alcoholism. In fact, the documentary takes on the structure of a tell-all memoir, complete with stray anecdotes about everyone from Michael Jackson (she says they were friends, but not dating despite what he told Oprah) to Tom Cruise (he got bizarrely, publicly mad at her for taking an antidepressant).
The film also allows Shields a platform in which to open up about a casting couch-type sexual assault that she survived in her youth, a horrific incident that she’s never spoken about before but which sounds all too familiar in its details. Shields doesn’t name her attacker but relays the story in the present day in one of the straight-to-camera interviews that shapes the story. Even decades after her most formative traumas, Shields reveals herself as a chronic peacemaker, seemingly more likely to find fault with her own reaction to men’s misdeeds or her mother’s mystifying decision-making than with the wrongdoers themselves. Sometimes, it feels as if we’re witnessing her grapple with the urge to overcome her overly-amenable child star persona in real-time.
“Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” stalls at points thanks to gaps in the narrative where it seems as if portions of interviews were pared down to the point of accidental ambiguousness, as when Shields describes her first big fight with her first husband, Andre Agassi, and the camera cuts to her looking teary as she sums up their marriage by saying they were better as friends. This phenomenon is most noticeable when Shields speaks about her roles in films that were considered exploitative by many, even at the time of their release. In present-day interviews, she insists that she never really thought about the possible implications of the films. At the same time, cuts to footage from her teen years show her sitting alongside her mother in interviews, giving obviously coached answers to endless questions about those very implications.
Fellow interviewees, including childhood friend Laura Linney, security specialist Gavin de Becker, and film historian Karina Longworth, often allude to what endlessly diplomatic Shields cannot or will not: her life, and the ways in which it’s been repeatedly hijacked by powerful men and hungry strangers, has often been scary. As a kid who was thrust into the spotlight before she could even speak, her agency was repeatedly stripped away, and the public mistook asking her how she felt about it for remedying the problem.
Documentarian Lana Wilson (“Miss Americana”) fills in the emotional gaps as best she can, both with insightful talking heads and with archival footage that speaks volumes. One of the film’s most disturbing elements, which goes largely unacknowledged by present-day interviewees, is the openly lecherous way with which male talk show hosts appraised teen and even pre-teen Shields, basically licking their lips all the while. While the actress herself still appears worried that a total deconstruction of her teen life will somehow find her at fault, Wilson makes the opposite conclusion abundantly clear through well-presented contextualization.
The small frictions within “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields,” including Shields’ own deeply ingrained sense that her mom wanted what was best for her, make this a much more interesting portrait of womanhood in the public eye than many of its contemporaries. While aspects of the actress and model’s life may occasionally still seem blurry, the feelings she experienced along the way are more sharply in focus than ever. Some of Shields’ deepest hurts come when she faces obstacles that the de-humanizing public have trouble accepting within the confines of her bombshell persona, as when she began college at Princeton and found herself profoundly isolated. The film often wrestles with America’s endemic tendency to dangerously project upon our public figures, a habit that hasn’t died out in the decades since Shield’s rise to stardom.
“Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” ultimately succeeds because it appears to do something few, if any, of Shields’ past projects have: it lets her present herself the way she wants to be presented. “I wasn’t told it was important to have agency because my mom could have it for me or directors I was working with,” she says at one point, in what is perhaps her most open acknowledgment of the ways in which she was exploited as a kid. Now, Shields clearly has agency, a gift the camera gives her when it allows her to tell her story the way she wants to by seemingly driving the conversations viewers see in “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields.”
At times, this meta-decision makes for a fractured viewing experience as aspects of the icon’s story are relatively glossed over or revealed by other interviewees. Yet it might also be the most beautiful thing about “Pretty Baby.” Just as Wilson once gave Taylor Swift the narrative control she lacked when a constant storm of tabloid coverage was buffeting her life, here she allows Shields a space that feels safe enough for her to speak up about tense moments that the world has seen her smile through for decades. The end result is a complicated portrait not just of a pretty face but of a deeply resilient spirit. [B]
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