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The Most Surprising Revelations in the ‘Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields’ Documentary

The child star turned grownup actress and author reveals a harrowing story in a landmark film

spinner image Brooke Shields on the red carpet at the New York premiere of the documentary Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields
Brooke Shields at the New York premiere of "Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields" held at Alice Tully Hall on March 29, 2023 in New York City.
Nina Westervelt/Variety via Getty Images

At 57, Brooke Shields, who was ubiquitous as a child star, is back on-screen and all over the news, thanks to the new two-part documentary Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields (on Hulu). The film speaks volumes, not just about Shields’ fascinating life but about larger issues in society. Here are the most eye-popping insights from her story.

spinner image Brooke Shields and her mother Teri pose together for a portrait in New York
(Left to right) Brooke Shields with her mother, Teri, in 1981.
Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

1. Her mother was a scary, determined person.

Teri Shields, her late mother and manager, was broke after she divorced Brooke’s conservative father, so she put her daughter to work. “I was the main breadwinner,” Brooke says in the film. Propelled by Teri’s ambition, she appeared on the Ivory Snow soap box at age 11 months, in countless ads and commercials, and as a nude prostitute in Louis Malle’s 1978 art film, Pretty Baby, at age 11. “She didn’t always go on the set with me ... because she could go to the bar and drink,” says Brooke.

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2. Her bohemian mom wasn’t all bad; her dad was in denial.

“With my mom, we just had so much fun!” says the actress. “Then I would go to my dad’s, where everything was routine and regimented. There’s not a lot of feeling and emotion in it, but it was great because it was … calm. My dad always tried to pretend that I didn’t do any of the things that I had done. He just buried his head. I don’t know if he ever saw any of my movies.”

Don’t miss this: Quick Questions with ‘Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields’ producer Ali Wentworth

3. Brooke’s memories are corroborated by her childhood friend Laura Linney, another single mother’s daughter who became a famous actress.

“When Teri was sober, she was raucous and fun,” says Linney in the doc, but when Teri came home drunk, Brooke showed Laura how to hide behind locked doors until it was safe to come out. “I felt such a responsibility to keep [Teri] alive,” Brooke says. “My very life depended on it — so I thought.”

4. Her immense fame was part of society’s reaction to feminism.

“As late as the mid-’60s, Hollywood was still working off of a sexual idea based on Marilyn Monroe,” says critic Karina Longworth in the doc. It was the era of adult bombshells like Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner and Jayne Mansfield. Then came Gloria Steinem, a new way of thinking about women — and also magazine ads like the one with a preteen saying, “Look, Ma, I’m a sexpot!”

Jean Kilbourne, coauthor of So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids, says in the doc, “It’s almost as if we’re told, ‘OK, [if] you’re not going to be traditionally feminine — which traditionally meant powerless, submissive, dependent — we’ll replace you with little girls.’ ” Brooke, says Linney, “sort of represented a femininity of that time … there was a sense that she was the woman of the future.”

5. ‘Pretty Baby’ was secretly a feminist film critiquing the 1970s.

Longworth calls Malle’s Pretty Baby “a Rorschach test” that doesn’t tell you how to feel about the film’s characters: Brooke’s preteen, her prostitute mother (Susan Sarandon) and the patrons of their 1917 New Orleans bordello, whose snickering reaction to the child’s sexualization sound sinisterly similar to Brooke’s 1978 TV interviewers. “One thing that the writer Polly Platt was trying to do with the script,” says Longworth, “was exaggerate something that she saw in real life, as a way of making a critique of 1970s Hollywood.”

spinner image Brooke Shields wearing a sun hat and holding a doll in the film Pretty Baby
Brooke Shields in "Pretty Baby."
Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

6. Brooke’s first kiss at age 11 was traumatic, and with a 29-year-old.

Her first kiss was on camera at age 11, with Pretty Baby costar Keith Carradine, then 29. “I had never kissed anybody before. I felt like, Oh my God, I’m supposed to know how to do this, but I don’t know how to do this. Every time Keith tried to do the kiss, I would scrunch my face up and Louis [Malle, the director] would get mad at me.”

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7. Her exploitation continued with the hit films ‘Blue Lagoon’ (1980) and ‘Endless Love’ (1981).

All Brooke ever wanted to be was an actress, but filmmakers wanted to capture her innocence, not help her master the acting craft. She says that on Blue Lagoon, about teens discovering sex while alone on a South Pacific island, “They wanted to make it a reality show. They wanted to sell my actual sexual awakening. The irony was I wasn’t in touch with any of my own sexuality. I had a lot of shame around all of it.”

When her character first experiences sexual ecstasy in Endless Love, she had trouble conveying this, since she was a virgin. So director Franco Zeffirelli gave her toe a painful twist to simulate passion. “I didn’t want to appear stupid or untalented, so I just dissociated.”

8. For Brooke, her Calvin Klein ads were acting; for the public, they were simply sexy.

Blue Lagoon had earned her the first-ever Golden Raspberry Award for worst actress, but at 15, she was actually a good actor in Calvin Klein jean ads that were as big a hit as her films were. They had clever, witty dialogue quoting St. Paul and particle physics theory. For the first time, Brooke appeared as a character with a point of view, more of a subject than an object. But all the public saw was the precocious sexual object in tight pants that made young girls want to be her, no matter how costly the overpriced jeans.

spinner image Brooke Shields gives the thumbs up in her cap and gown as she shows her diploma during graduation ceremonies at Princeton University
Brooke Shields shows off her diploma during graduation ceremonies at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, on June 9, 1987.
Jack Kanthal/AP Photo

9. Earning an Ivy League honors degree failed to convince people she was smart.

When she went to Princeton, Johnny Carson quipped, “Her biology professor gave her an A in anatomy — hers!” And after being bombarded with invasive attention for her entire adolescence, her classmates tended to avoid her, making college a lonely experience — except for the school’s Triangle Club for drama, which had also launched Jimmy Stewart. That’s where Brooke discovered her gift for comedy, and acting as a fun activity.

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10. She faced huge obstacles in forging her adult career.

After Princeton, she went from a controlling alcoholic stage mother to a controlling then meth-addicted husband, tennis star Andre Agassi, who encouraged her to break back into showbiz. She did the best work of her career in comic roles on Broadway and TV’s Suddenly Susan, but when she hilariously played a stalker girlfriend who licks Joey’s hand on Friends, Agassi jealously freaked out, smashing his own tennis trophies.

spinner image Brooke Shields hugging Michael Jackson at the 1993 Grammy Awards
Brooke Shields (left) and Michael Jackson at the Grammy Awards on Feb. 26, 1993 in Los Angeles.
John Barr/Liaison

11. Michael Jackson was her dear friend, but he wanted more.

At 13, she befriended her fellow child star with a pushy parent, but after Jackson asked her to adopt a child with him and publicly claimed she was his girlfriend when she was actually dating Dean Cain (who played Superman on Lois & Clark), she told him, “I am having a shot at a normal life — you cannot drag me into crazy town.”

12. She was raped by a Hollywood power player she does not name.

When she met with an unidentified A-list moviemaker she’d considered a friend to talk about film projects to revive her post-Princeton career, he raped her in his hotel room. “I just thought, Stay alive and get out. God knows I knew how to be dissociated from my body. I’d practiced that.”

13. She corrected Tom Cruise on an important medical issue.

Stricken with serious postpartum depression, she got treatment and overcame it, becoming a happy mother of two daughters with husband Chris Henchy. When Tom Cruise attacked her for advocating treating the condition with medication, she calmly refuted his argument in a well-written New York Times op-ed piece, and suggested, “He should stick to battling aliens.” Her advocacy helped pass national legislation, the Mothers Act, to help treat postpartum depression.

14. The best scene of all is the one with her kids.

Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields features an interview in her home, where her husband and teenage daughters chat with her about her controversial movies and how they look from the standpoint of today. It’s charming, funny, poignant, and gives a largely horrifying story a hopeful, upbeat note.

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