The documentary Pretty Baby Brooke Shields streams on Hulu in two parts on April 3.
The documentary Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields streams on Hulu in two parts on April 3.Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute/Getty

‘This Movie Is the True Meaning of Catharsis’: Brooke Shields on Looking Back—And Starting Over

The last scene of the documentary Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, about the 57-year-old actor’s life, career, and sexual objectification as a child, is an intimate family dinner at the West Village townhouse Shields shares with her husband, writer Chris Henchy, and two teenage daughters, Rowan, 19, and Grier, 16. Shields asks her daughters if they have seen either of the films that catapulted her to teenage stardom: 1978’s Pretty Baby, about a child prostitute in turn-of-the-20th-century New Orleans, and 1980’s Blue Lagoon, an Adam and Eve–inspired island-survival fantasy. Grier says that edits of Pretty Baby on TikTok had steered her away from watching it in full. Rowan asks her mother if she appears naked in the film. When Shields says, “Yes, my little 11-year-old body,” Rowan visibly shudders. “Okay, no, that’s weird, Mom,” Rowan says, her hands up in protest. Shields probes them as to why, while Henchy nervously chews his steak at the head of the table. “Child pornography!” cries Grier. 

It sounds simple, but after two hours of watching Shields wrestle with the way that she was presented to the world and treated by the film and media industries as a young person, the documentary’s takeaway does not feel quite so straightforward. 

After premiering to a standing ovation at Sundance in February, the film, from director Lana Wilson (of the critically acclaimed Taylor Swift doc Miss Americana), will air in two parts on Hulu beginning on April 3. “I was surprised at how invested everybody so immediately was,” says Shields of the early response. We are sitting on the cream sofa in her living room on a bright, late-winter day. Shields is dressed casually, in wide-leg track pants and a cropped white sweatshirt. Across from us, oil portraits of Shields’s daughters as little girls by the artist Will Cotton frame the marble fireplace. “People found themselves in my story in different ways and, to me, that’s why it works.” 

Shields began modeling at 11 months old, appearing in a Francesco Scavullo–shot Dove soap ad, and until now, neither she nor her manager-mother, Teri, had looked back. (Teri Shields died in 2012.) “This movie is the true meaning of catharsis, which I always had wrong. I always thought of cathartic experiences as ‘Blech! Gotta get that outta my system.’” Shields makes a vomiting gesture. “But Sydney, my therapist”—Shields has been seeing the same Jungian analyst weekly since she was 21—“said, ‘No, no, no, the actual definition of it is a broader understanding of a circumstance or a situation that you thought you knew.’”

Shields, at her home in New York.

Photo: ABC News Studios

Throughout the film, the audience accompanies Shields on this path to broader understanding, finally reaching what feels like a sincere pay-off: Shields reclaiming control of her own story for the first time—at least, to a point. Near the end of the film, BuzzFeed’s Scaachi Koul, one of the talking heads, says, “This is not Brooke Shields’s story. This is a story about all women.” We understand the argument she is making—about society’s penchant for both objectifying young girls and condemning their sexualization—but I ask Shields if there’s a feeling of her personal narrative being hijacked to fit a wider cultural one, both in this film and in the uproar that surrounded the original Pretty Baby. 

“That was one of my husband’s fears,” says Shields, concededly, after a pause. “He was worried that a film about exploitation would end up exploiting my experience. But this story is not uncommon, with regard to abuse or objectification. I make it an identifiable, relatable story.” She sips from a mug of tea (PG Tips with half-and-half) and returns it to the glass coffee table, covered in art books and a recent issue of Hamptons magazine featuring her and her daughters on the cover. (Grier is set on trying her hand at runway modeling, and Shields has finally concluded it is better to help her than to fight her in this pursuit.) Next to her mug sits a personalized notepad with the words “I Am Here” printed across the top. 

“It’s like any art form—you want to move people, you want to affect them in some way. So this had to do that. And I think those talking heads, they can’t do it on their own,” she says with a little chuckle. “They need a me.”

A young Brooke Shields.

Photo: ABC News Studios

There’s a compelling argument made by academics in the film that in the mid-to-late 1970s, one cultural response to the women’s movement was to sexualize young girls instead of their adult counterparts, who were arguing to be seen for more than just their parts. The documentary shows the progression of Shields’s childhood advertising campaigns—the legend goes that Teri convinced Eileen Ford to open a children’s division, with young Brooke as the first model—from a cute toddler to a seductively posed and scantily clad proto-JonBenet. But it was Pretty Baby that launched a trajectory of superstardom and controversy about a preteen’s sexploitation. 

When producers (and close friends of Shields’s) Ali Wentworth and George Stephanopoulos approached Shields about the film, the actor says, “My ego had to adjust, because it wasn’t a documentary about all my wonderful work. I had to put on my more intellectual brain and say, ‘This is actually going to be better, because it’s about something you are the conduit to and the different types of conversations that come from that.’”

In fact, she says, it reminded her of her thesis at Princeton, “The Initiation: From Innocence to Experience: The Pre-Adolescent/Adolescent Journey in the Films of Louis Malle, Pretty Baby and Lacombe, Lucien” (1987), comparing the themes of lost innocence in two of my father’s films. And while the title of Wilson’s film is lifted from Pretty Baby, some version of Shields’s thesis title could just as easily apply.  

Shields and Susan Sarandon in 1978’s Pretty Baby

Photo: Getty Images

When I told Vogue’s deputy editor that I would be writing this piece, his eyebrows shot up to the 65th floor of 1 World Trade Center. Was it appropriate for me to cover a documentary that takes my father and the misogynist industrial complex of the late ’70s and early ’80s to task? Maybe not, but I remembered meeting Shields at a movie premiere years ago, when I was party reporting, and her telling me about her college thesis and how much she loved my father. When I checked in with her team more recently, they confirmed that she was looking forward to doing the interview with me. So, I felt like conflict had been averted. What I did not anticipate was how complicated it would be to watch Pretty Baby again, and learn about the on-set conditions that my father oversaw. 

I revisited the film on a recent Saturday night with my mother, who trends more toward the Catherine Deneuve end of the “woke” spectrum, and even she audibly drew breath at certain shots of an 11 year-old Shields languorously nude, or having her virginity auctioned off to the highest bidder. I still love the film, but it seems indisputable that Shields was too young to be put in such a situation. 

Shields insists that she did not feel uncomfortable with the sexual content in Pretty Baby. Yet the film’s subject matter—specifically, the scene in which Shields’s Violet poses nude for her photographer husband (Keith Carradine), based on the real-life E.J. Bellocq—ignited the culture wars in 1978 when the film came out. It promptly received an R rating in the United States, an X rating in the United Kingdom, and was outright banned in Canada, with the press dubbing it “kiddie porn” and Shields, the “next Lolita.”

According to Shields, however, it was the punishing work conditions that made the shoot problematic—including 12-to-15-hour days; a dedication to realism that forced her to wear antique shoes that lacerated her feet; and co-star Susan Sarandon maintaining that a slap scene could not be faked, and whacking Shields across the face for nine consecutive takes. These transgressions would have also fallen under the director’s purview, yet it was Teri Shields who became the villain of the press. 

Shields and Christopher Atkins in 1980’s The Blue Lagoon.

Photo: Getty Images

This narrative persisted: the maneuvering, aggressive stage mom putting her daughter at risk instead of the unimpeachable male auteur. Franco Zeffirelli, who cast Shields in his 1981 film Endless Love, was dissatisfied with the then-15-year-old’s expression during an orgasm scene, so while filming he twisted her toe hard enough to make her cry out. In Fiji, during the shoot for The Blue Lagoon, director Randal Kleiser tried to engineer a real relationship between Shields and her 18-year-old co-star, Christopher Atkins. Still, Teri was blamed, and Shields defended her—but her position has evolved over time.

During the family dinner captured in the documentary, Shields is caught off-guard when Rowan and Grier ask if she would let them appear nude onscreen. Shields admits to me that her first reaction was, “Wait a minute, I don’t have to defend my mother anymore because I’m the mother now.” (The answer to her daughters is no, which Shields follows up by asking aloud: “Does that make me a hypocrite?”) 

Shields and her mother, Teri, in 1981.

Photo: Getty Images

She then asks her daughters whether her infamously suggestive ads for Calvin Klein jeans were any different from a 16-year-old girl posting a sexy bikini shot on social media today. “According to them, yes,” Shields haltingly recalls. “It sounds like a contradiction, but they’re telling me it’s on their terms, and it makes them feel good.” 

By the time Shields filmed those Calvin Klein ads with Richard Avedon, she had already become the youngest cover star in Vogue’s history, been dubbed “The ’80s Look” by Time magazine, and was indisputably the most photographed teenager on the planet. She remembers enjoying the Calvin Klein campaign’s clever riffs on the word “jeans,” requiring her to recite a minute-long definition of gene theory from memory and describe Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” concept. “I loved it because I could use my brain,” she says. But one turn of phrase became a lightning rod: “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.” No hidden meaning was apparent to Shields at the time, but the spot was soon banned by ABC and CBS and condemned as child pornography, the 1980s equivalent of Balenciaga’s recent scandal. 

The media loved her, but they also pilloried her. Like Framing Britney Spears, the documentary clarifies—with the benefit of time and perspective—the role of the media as the relentless villain in Shields’s story. Reporters’ lack of tenderness toward a preteen girl and demands that she answer for the way that she was sexualized onscreen are perhaps the most gasp-inducing parts of the film. “They’re shocking,” agrees Shields, recalling an interview with Barbara Walters in which the journalist asked Shields to stand up and compare her measurements to Walters’s own. “I felt more objectified and abused by [that],” says Shields. “The irony is I didn’t have that discomfort or shame in the one nude scene in Pretty Baby.” 

Another clip shows a male talk show host reading a description of Teri, who struggled with alcoholism, as having a face “[bearing] the marks of a heavy drinker: rough skin, sunken eyes”—and asking a teenage Shields, “Do you agree with that?” She matter-of-factly replies that her mother’s skin is the result of terrible allergies. “When I first saw that again, I was with Ali [Wentworth] and she just looked at me and I just bawled my eyes out,” says Shields. “I was so glad that that was highlighted because it’s so layered and it’s so abusive to both of us.”

I ask Shields if this retrospective journey had made her wish she’d done anything in her career differently. “I think I would never have gone down the ‘it’s a good idea to get a hair dryer made with your name on it’ [route]. I think there were so many non-thespian choices that were made so that we could buy the apartment, get a car.” After Shields graduated from Princeton, in 1987, a fallow period ensued. “I don’t know if I was a joke, but I definitely felt like it at times, because there were these failed movies and then doing weird ads,” she says. 

It was then, in her early 20s, that Shields took a meeting with a Hollywood power player whom she does not identify. After a dinner to discuss a potential role, he invited her to his hotel room to call a taxi and raped her. Sharing that story for the first time is, for Shields, a meaningful recasting of her narrative. “I’ve had so many stages to get to before I had any ownership over myself and the experience,” Shields says of her assault, though she could be talking about her whole life story. “I thought, You don’t have to explain yourself, but if you’re gonna be who you say you are, you can’t give 80%. It’s like Andre’s book, called Open…please,” she adds, coyly referencing her ex-husband Andre Agassi’s best-selling 2009 memoir. “It’s a very interesting play on words.”

With the documentary now behind her, it does not seem like an accident that two of Shields’s current projects are a podcast called Now What?, on which she interviews people about pivotal moments in their lives, and Beginning Is Now, an online platform and lifestyle brand focused on women of a certain age sharing their stories on their own terms. “It might just be for me personally—I’m 57, and my kids are getting older and the timing is perfect,” she says, “but this feels like the next coming into my own.”