Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields–Lana Wilson’s Revelatory Documentary

Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, a two-part documentary about the highs and lows of American icon and sex symbol Brooke Shields, brought the house down at its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival Saturday night.

Pretty Baby will air on Hulu later this year.

The docu explores the appalling sexualization of Shields beginning at age 9, the top-tier modeling and acting career that followed, and the urgent conversations she inspires about what society expects of girls and young women.

Directed by Lana Wilson (Taylor Swift’s “Miss Americana”), Pretty Baby confronts milestones in Shields’ life that, in a post #MeToo world, offers many shocking revelations.

Pre-pubescent nude photoshoots, male talk show hosts asking if 12-year-old Shields enjoys being a sex symbol, the horrors of an alcoholic mom and manager and Shields’ notable public battles with Tom Cruise.

“I’ve always made it an important part of my journey to be as honest as I could. Not just to the outside, but to myself,” Shields said during a Q&A after the premiere.

I didn’t want to become shut down

“I didn’t want to become shut down. The industry I’m in primes you to be shut down. I didn’t want to lose to that.”

A mix of talking heads from her life populate the documentary to offer insights. Childhood friend Laura Linney, Lionel Richie, Ali Wentworth, and security czar Gavin de Becker all show up. Fellow actor and friend Drew Barrymore corroborated the confusion and difficulties that come with child stardom.

In 1978, when she was 12, Shields played a child prostitute in Louis Malle’s controversial film Pretty Baby.

In 1980, 14-year-old Shields was the youngest fashion model ever to appear on the cover of Vogue. She appeared in controversial print and TV ads for Calvin Klein jeans. The TV ad included her famous tagline: “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” These ads helped catapult Klein’s career to super-designer status.

Selling Sexual Awakening

A particularly poignant moment occurs during a section on Blue Lagoon, the landmark movie about teenagers in love on a deserted island. Director Randal Kleiser actively built a narrative in the press that Shields was coming of age sexually in real time with her character. “They wanted to make it a reality show,” Shields said. “They wanted to sell my sexual awakening.”

Perhaps, the work suggests, this is why Shields broke her white-hot career streak to attend Princeton University.

“Brooke insisted on getting control over her mind, over her career, over her future. I found it remarkable and very contemporary in so many ways,” Wilson told the audience.

Although Shields doesn’t identify her assaulter, she confirms that it was someone she knew and was friendly with. “This is the first time I’ve ever spoken about what happened,” Shields says as she tearfully recounts her story.

At the time the assault occurred, the former child star was looking to re-start her acting career after stepping away from the spotlight to attend Princeton University. But her re-entry into Hollywood proved more difficult than expected. That was when her assaulter first reached out. “I had heard there was a movie being made, and I was in consideration,” Shields recalls in the film. “It was the first time since college that any interested was expressed in me.”

“We had a dinner,” she continues. “I thought it was a work meeting. I had met this person before, and he was always nice to me.” But the mood of the meeting abruptly changed midway through the meal, and she quickly began looking to make an exit. “I said, ‘I have to get a cab,’ and he said, ‘Come back to the hotel — I’ll call you a cab.'”

Following him up to his hotel room, Shields remembers feeling uncertain what to do. “I don’t want to go over to the phone, because it’s not my phone,” she says. “I don’t want to sit down, because I’m not staying.” While looking out at the view of the beach with a pair of binoculars, her assaulter re-emerged. “The door opens, and the person comes out naked,” she says. “I put the binoculars back and he was right on me.”

“It was like wrestling,” Shields describes, adding that she was too scared of being choked or hit to think of fighting back. “I just absolutely froze. I thought: ‘My one ‘No’ should have been enough. Stay alive and get out.'”

During the assault, Shields “disassociated” herself from her body, an experience she’d had earlier in her career on the set of the 1981 Franco Zeffirelli film Endless Love. While filming a love scene for that romance, Shields — who was 15 when the film was shot — remembers the late Italian director grabbing her toe and twisting it to capture the look of “ecstasy” that he wanted on camera.

“It was more angst than anything because he was hurting me,” Shields says in the feature. “I didn’t want to appear stupid our untalented, so I just disassociated. It’s like you’re instantly zooming out: seeing a situation, but you’re not connected to it. You instantly become. a vapor of yourself around something that’s happening.”

Zeffirelli also directed the 1968 film version of Romeo & Juliet that featured a brief nude scene with the film’s then-underage stars, Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting. Both actors are now—five decades after the film was made– suing Paramount over that scene.

When the assault ended, Shields recalls her still-nude attacker not even acknowledging what happened. “The next thing I know, the door is open and the person says, ‘I’ll see you around.’ I just said ‘Yeah,’ went down in the elevator and got my own cab. I cried all the way to my friend’s apartment.”

She later confronted her assaulter in a letter rather than discuss the incident publicly. “I said, ‘That was a huge trust that was just blown up. How dare you? I’m better than that. I’m better than you are. That’s the way I dealt with things. I wanted to erase the whole thing from my mind and body and just keep on the path that I was on. The system had never once come to help me. I just had to get stronger on my own.”

Shields initially wasn’t sure if she’d share her story when she sat down to be interviewed by Wilson for the film. “I had no idea I was going to say it,” she explained. The tenor of the #MeToo times made her realize now would be the right time to speak up. “I feel as a mother of two young girls that I hope that just by even hearing my incident that I can add myself to becoming an advocate. Because this is something that does happen every day, and it should not be happening. I felt that I had arrived at a place where I could talk about it. It’s taken me a long time.”

Pretty Baby features Shields, who’s now 57, reflecting on her high-profile relationships, including with Michael Jackson, who she says was never a romantic partner despite the intense public scrutiny of their years-long friendship. “We met when I was 13 and we hung out,” she recalls. “It was very childlike.”

“We were just really friends,” Shields continues. “But he always wanted to be sort of seen with me. If he would pick a restaurant, I would say, ‘How did [the paparazzi] know we were here?’ And then at one point, he said that we should adopt a child and raise a child together.”

The actress also indicates that Jackson lied when he told Oprah Winfrey that he and Shields were dating during a TV interview in 1993. “I called him afterwards and said, ‘What are you doing?'” she remembers. “‘I’m currently with my boyfriend in New York City!’ I eventually lost touch with him.”

Throughout her adulthood, Shields describes her attraction to a figure she claimed to be as “controlling” as her own tyrannical stage mother –- the tennis star Andre Agassi. She says Agassi was wracked with jealousy while she broke out in sitcoms like “Friends” and “Suddenly Susan.” Their battles weren’t all private, and the marriage did not last long.

After marrying now-husband Chris Henchy, Shields struggled for years with conception. After many attempts, she delivered daughter Rowan and immediately slipped into extreme depression.

Postpartum Depression and Tom Cruise Controversy

In 2005, she authored the book “Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression.”

At the same time that Shields was promoting her book, Tom Cruise was making the rounds for his Spielberg sci-fi film War of the Worlds. Cruise, the most famous member of the therapy and prescription drug averse Church of Scientology, publicly went after Shields for promoting antidepressants. He went as far as calling her “dangerous.” In the docu, Shields reflected on the incident as “ridiculous.”

During one scene, the camera zooms in on the headline “What Tom Cruise Doesn’t Know About Estrogen,” from a New York Times op-ed she wrote in response to Cruise. The audience applauded in delight after actor Judd Nelson recalls what he said to Shields at the time: “Tom Cruise should stick to fighting aliens.”