During the two-hour-and-13-minute runtime of Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, a new two-part ABC News documentary streaming on Hulu, viewers see Shields’s face and body at every age, from every angle. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of photos from her long career as a model and actor — selling gym equipment, gracing magazine covers, starring in movies, giving interviews. This is a woman who has never known life outside of the public eye.
For those unfamiliar with Shields’s story, Pretty Baby offers a meticulous biography. She was raised by a single mother, Teri, a former model who managed Brooke’s career but had an alcohol addiction. Brooke got into modeling early — her first gig was an Ivory soap ad at 11 months old — and quickly became her family’s breadwinner, then an icon of classic American beauty. By the time she was 10, she was touring the talk show circuit; by the time she was 16, Time magazine declared her the face of the ’80s. She’s been famous ever since — beloved, reviled, obsessed over, and scrutinized. Now Pretty Baby gives Shields the chance to reclaim control of her narrative, and she’s eager to offer something more than just her looks. “The entirety of my life, it was, ‘She’s a pretty face,’’’ Shields says. “Over and over and over and over and over. And that always just seared me.”
But there’s a tricky problem that Pretty Baby, directed by Lana Wilson, who previously directed the 2020 Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana, never quite addresses. However emphatically it argues against the objectification of its subject, its endless stream of glamorous images has an undeniable aesthetic power that short-circuits rationale. As Rhonda Garelick wrote for the New York Times, “When Ms. Shields’s image is on the screen, it’s almost impossible to look away.” Even as Pretty Baby seeks to reveal the human being behind the sex symbol, it can’t help but draw its audiences in with images of Shields’s youthful beauty, thus reinscribing the terms of her worth. The documentary seems to ask: Isn’t she beautiful? Doesn’t she deserve better than this?
The internal contradictions of the documentary are most acute during its segment about Blue Lagoon, a 1980 film starring 14-year-old Shields as a damsel stranded on a tropical island with her cousin. Between nude shots of Shields and her costar Christopher Atkins, then age 18, swimming, play fighting, and kissing, cultural sociologist Jeffrey Alexander explains the appeal of the film: “The audience could engage in erotic fantasies about somebody who’s way underage. They could not recognize the transgression while they experienced it at the same time.”
Even as Pretty Baby seeks to reveal the human being behind the sex symbol, it can’t help but draw its audiences in with images of Shields’s youthful beauty, thus reinscribing the terms of her worth.
But intercutting clips of the film with criticism of it doesn’t make it less sexually charged, and so Pretty Baby serves up the same appeal as Blue Lagoon once did: offering transgression and distance from the transgression at the same time. Visually, the documentary revels in the beauty and eroticism of young, thin, naked Shields, but verbally, it skirts the obvious and uncomfortable truth that the clips are sexually arousing. It intercuts clips of giggling teenagers from 1980 talking about the movie’s appeal: “I liked it because I have a lively imagination,” smirks one. “It teaches a lot of things,” says another, euphemistically. Shields herself sidesteps the issue. She says that “Blue Lagoon was one of the first movies that parents let their children see that had to do with coming of age, loss of virginity, [and] sexuality in that way,” but she doesn’t specify in what way, which is pornographically.
Certainly Shields doesn’t have to relive her own sexualization so explicitly, but the documentary’s self-denial — no, this isn’t erotic — prevents it from probing more challenging questions. Pretty Baby addresses how Randal Kleiser, the director of Blue Lagoon, tried to market the movie as “a reality show,” evidence of Shields’s real-life sexual awakening and loss of virginity, but it doesn’t link this gross anecdote to a larger pattern of older men asserting ownership over Shields’s sexuality. Though Shields does later talk in depth about her experience with sexual assault, a segment of the documentary which is admirably and sensitively handled, elsewhere, she seems determined to put on a good face. Recounting an ordeal she endured at age 16, when her mother sued photographer and family friend Garry Gross to prevent him from releasing nude photos he took of Shields when she was 9, she says, reasonably, “It was so hurtful to me. … Why put me through that?” It’s a startlingly mild assessment of the situation, but it’s revealing of the documentary’s fundamental mission, which is not to evaluate Shields’s public image through a feminist lens, but to give Shields control over her story where she has so frequently had none.
The result of this is that Pretty Baby skims over questions that deserve more thorough answers. Though Shields talks about refusing to be a victim, her treatment by Kleiser, Gross, and her unnamed assailant is evidence of how she has been sexualized for being young and vulnerable. And that isn’t a problem that affects only her; it’s a problem rooted in a broader American and Western tendency to eroticize women’s virginity and men’s dominance. Activist Jean Kilbourne addresses that phenomenon briefly in the documentary, declaring, “One of the responses to feminism was the sexualization of little girls.” But as other critics have noted, this feels like an incomplete analysis.
There seems to be some tension between Wilson’s and Shields’s aims. It sometimes feels like the documentary is ready to be angry on Shields’s behalf, while its subject wants to choose a more uplifting emotion than anger. While cultural critics (including Alexander, Kilbourne, and BuzzFeed News’ Scaachi Koul) give analysis of Shields’s misogynistic treatment in the public eye, Shields and her friends (including actors Laura Linney and Drew Barrymore) offer tempered personal anecdotes attesting to Shields’s resilience. For most of its runtime, the documentary cycles dutifully through these interviews, creating an overall impression that is conflicted but relatively mild: Shields has had an inimitable life in which she has done her best to survive and thrive.
It sometimes feels like the documentary is ready to be angry on Shields’s behalf, while its subject wants to choose a more uplifting emotion than anger.
But in the few moments when Pretty Baby dares to interrupt its own form, a more vivid and imaginative version of the documentary peeks through. Once, it shows Shields talking about her experience with sexual assault in an intimate conversation with friend and executive producer Alexandra Wentworth. They sit together on a couch; Shields blinks back tears behind her glasses and can’t make eye contact as she admits, “The thing that I think I’m the most ashamed of … is that there was a part of me that felt cool.” Wentworth interjects, “Oh, God, Brooke,” and they parse Shields’s feelings of guilt, shame, and confusion together. It feels more urgent and less polished than anything else in the documentary, like a real insight into the mind of a woman still grappling with her singular life.
It might be difficult to imagine how a documentary about a famously beautiful woman could forego clips of her public life in favor of private moments, but Wilson has already done that. For Miss Americana, Wilson followed Swift on tour and at home; she captured the singer crying, exploring, ranting, and panicking. She made Swift’s interiority seem as significant as her external achievements.
It makes sense that Wilson’s approach to Shields’s career would be different; Swift was at the peak of her adulation when her documentary came out, while Shields has spent the last 20 years mostly out of the public eye. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that the problem of Shields’s public persona can’t be solved in the plane of its original conception. For her whole life, Shields’s looks have been overvalued, while her talents have been devalued. How can a documentary that derives its visual splendor from images of her youthful beauty remedy this imbalance? It can’t. ●