to say that Brooke Shields was objectified during its early years would be the understatement of the century. It’s hard to understand how this all happened, or how anyone thought it was okay, through a contemporary lens: modeling nude at ten, billed as “the world’s youngest sex symbol” at 12, appearing nude in a major hollywood movie at 15. That she was able to earn anything close to normality, let alone graduate from Princeton and become a powerful voice for mothers everywhere, is extraordinary.
“You know, my professional life is a life force within me, because it’s the only thing I’ve ever known,” Shields says in a new documentary film. “Sometimes I’m surprised that I survived any of that.”
In Pretty Baby: Brooke Shieldsa two-part documentary to be released in 2023 Sundance Film Festival and will be out later this year in huluthe former child star looks back on her commodification and coercion with clear eyes, finally being allowed to control her own narrative.
Shields began modeling as a baby, appearing in an ad for Ivory Soap. As she grew older, even though she was still a child, cultural forces began to sexualize her in disturbing ways—a response, cultural critics in the film suggest, to second-wave feminism. When she turned 11, Shields played a child prostitute in Pretty Baby, directed by the late French filmmaker Louis Malle. In one scene in the film, his character is presented on a literal plate and auctioned off to the highest bidder. In another, he kisses actor Keith Carradine, a grown man.
“We had a first kiss scene. I had never kissed anyone before,” Shields recalls in the film. “I felt like, oh my gosh, I’m supposed to know how to do this, but I don’t know how to do this. every time Keith [Carradine] I tried to make the kiss, I wrinkled my face. And Louis got mad at me.
This was a common theme: men controlling too-young Shields. At the age of 15, she appeared naked in the film. blue Lagoon, a kind of wicked fantasy movie about two teenagers who fall in love on a deserted 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 actual sexual awakening.” That year she also shot Endless LoveDirected by the late Italian filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli, who became so frustrated with Shields during the movie’s sex scene for not giving him what he wanted that he started crooking his toe.
“Zeffirelli kept grabbing my toe and, like, twisting it so that I had this look of…I guess ecstatic? But it was more heartbreak than anything, because he was hurting me,” he recalls.
Shields was mentored by her mother Teri (her parents divorced when she was young), a bohemian “force of nature” from Newark, New Jersey, who battled a serious drinking problem her entire life. Shields’ childhood friend, actress Laura Linney, describes in the film how the two would hide in Shields’ bedroom as children while Teri was drunk and out of control.
“I didn’t revel in that success in the ’80s. I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I made it.’ All of those things that were associated with being these ‘sexy’ people just didn’t feel like me,” says Shields. “I didn’t blame my mom, but I wish she would have said a little bit more, ‘Oh, let’s see what this means. And this would come back to bite us?’”
Director Lana Wilson (american lady) recounts Shields’ entire journey throughout the 136-minute film, from her much-publicized relationship with michael jackson (“I was very childish…we were just friends”) to the success of the sitcom with suddenly susan and serving as a public advocate for mothers suffering from postpartum depression, much to the chagrin of a certain high ranking scientologist.
One of the most horrifying parts of the document concerns 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 family friend, had taken nude photographs of her in a bathtub that Rizzoli published in a book. When he turned 16 and became a global superstar, Gross tried to sell the photos. Then Shields and his mother sued him in New York court.
Shields, again just 16 at the time, was cross-examined on the stand for two days and broke down in tears. At one point, Gross’s lawyer even asked her, “You’re having a good time posing nude right now, aren’t you?” (She was 10 years old). To make matters worse, the court sided with Gross, holding that he owned these nude images of a child and had the right to do with them whatever he wanted.
“The break in trust and friendship hurt more than the nature of the photo,” says Shields. “It was the way I was treated by the men associated with the whole thing. He was like low rent, low class: there was no integrity in that, and for me that was very upsetting and hurtful. I mean, my whole life, over and over and over and over again, it was, ‘She’s a pretty face.’ She is a sex symbol. And that always burned me because the kind of nerdy, goofy person who was creative and smart was at the core of who I was.”
By the time she graduated from high school, Shields had struggled to regain some control of her life. She went to Princeton (where she graduated), wrote books, and became a spokesperson for teenage girls.
“It didn’t really occur to me to have my own opinions for a long time. I thought, just listen to everyone and take what they say,” Shields says. “I spent my life owing people things and doing what they wanted. Finally, I asked myself: who will I be if I don’t allow that anymore?
However, after graduating, she found that the movie roles had dried up. She says that she was “vulnerable” and, at the time, she was sexually assaulted by an unidentified film producer under the guise of meeting for a role. It’s a story she’s never shared publicly before.
“I absolutely 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 that he knew how to dissociate me from my body. I had practiced that.
She continues: “I wanted to erase the whole thing from my mind and body, and just continue on the path that I was on. And the system had never come to help me, you know? So, I just had to get stronger on my own.”
And she did. Shields discovered that she had a gift for comedy, first with a guest appearance in Friends as Joey’s stalker girlfriend, and then with her own hit NBC sitcom suddenly susan, which lasted four seasons. She fell in and out of love with tennis player Andre Agassi, who proved to be jealous and controlling, and later found true happiness with comedy writer Chris Henchy, whom he married in 2001.
After the birth of her son, Shields became the public face of postpartum depression, writing a book and going on talk shows to discuss it, thus giving a voice to mothers around the world who had experienced similar issues. Shields even helped pass the Mothers Act, an important piece of legislation that dedicated additional resources to help mothers with postpartum depression. Theirs is, overall, a remarkable story of resilience.
“I think I was ready to say, ‘Everybody thinks I can’t do this, but just look at me,’” Shields says. “And I think the same thing was happening at the university as well. You know, ‘She’s not going to be serious.’ ‘She’s not going to be that bright.’ But I thought, ‘You know what? Not only will I surprise them, but I will surprise myself.’”
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