At the start of the second half of Lana Wilson’s “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields,” the two-part documentary’s own subject comes close to unlocking the uncomfortable truth of her life. The model and actress is halfway through her time at Princeton and is asked to pen her first book, “On Your Own,” part autobiography, part guide for other hip young ladies. In one of many confessional interviews, Shields details how she tried to make the book both honest and practical, only for its publishers to wrest the material away from her, editing it down to the fluffy (leg warmers are cool!) and the notorious (it was in “On Your Own” that Shields revealed she was still a virgin, a story that overshadowed every other word in the book).
Resigned to not having her voice heard, Shields shrugs it off. She doesn’t fight it. The book is published. It’s hardly the first time something like this has happened. It will not be the last.
Decades later, Shields still seems sad about it. And that’s it. As with many other moments in Wilson’s latest, Shields touches up against personal revelations before backing away from them, skating on to the next story. And while no one should have to excavate decades of pain to tee up a compelling documentary, that Shields is never truly pressed regarding some of the bigger questions of her life — particularly in the first part of the doc, which is dedicated to her childhood and youth — leaves the entire endeavor feeling oddly fractured, a wholly incomplete portrait.
That’s not to say that Shields doesn’t reveal plenty in “Pretty Baby,” far from it, as the second half of the documentary also comes packed with headline-ready revelations, including stories about an alleged rape at the hands of an unnamed Hollywood bigwig, what really happened with Shields and Michael Jackson, and even a story about her then-boyfriend Andre Agassi flipping out over her “Friends” appearance (the tennis star, Shields tells us, was so angry at her turn on the sitcom that he smashed all his trophies out of anger). There’s plenty of meat here, but little of it is actually that satisfying.
Mostly, it’s unsettling. It should be! Viewers who have never seen early interviews of Shields — who started her modeling career when she was just an infant, making her someone who has literally been famous nearly all of her life — will likely be shocked to see the way Shields was treated even in seemingly friendly chats. Nearly always, she is an object, constantly told how pretty she was, being praised solely on her looks, simply a face and body to people. As one talking head explains it, Shields was a “nuclear version of what it was to be judged by your appearance.”
For Shields, it was even more fraught. She tells us before the opening credits even finish that the hardest thing for her growing up was “knowing who I was.” How could she? All she heard was how gorgeous she was. What about the person she is? In many of these early interviews, Wilson zeroes in on young Shields’ face, which can’t help but betray how hurtful and confusing the experience was for her.
Even worse: The person expected to guide her and shield her was incapable of doing so. Becoming famous wasn’t Shields’ choice (remember, she was just 11 months old when she booked her first gig), and the mighty engine of her early career was her mother, Teri. While Shields resists easy labels like “stage mom” (instead, Teri was just someone who wanted things “to be fabulous”), it’s clear that the pair’s relationship was the pivotal one of both their lives.
While Shields’ early career was marked by choices that would likely be loudly, publicly questioned these days (the segment about a series of fully nude photographs of Shields, taken when she was just 10, is absolutely horrifying, but not always in expected ways), she’s yet to fully grapple with them. No, Shields tells us, she and Teri were subverting all those expectations, they knew what they were doing. No, no, Shields insists of their bond, “It wasn’t abusive, but it was emotionally abusive.” And that Shields was the primary breadwinner from the start, well, that’s just the way things were. But why were they that way? (Later, Shields get more detailed when discussing Teri’s alcoholism, which contributed to many of their problems, both personal and professional.)
But, again, why? Or, perhaps more succinctly, who? As in, who was to blame for the way Shields was treated, consumed, turned into something so very much an icon and barely a person?
While “Pretty Baby” hits all the key moments of Shields’ life — her infamous Calvin Klein Jeans campaign, her early movies, her escape to Princeton, her later resurgence in comedy, her truly remarkable work crusading for other women who suffer from postpartum depression (including a very memorable bit where she faced off with no less than Tom Cruise), and much more — necessary context is often an afterthought. Wilson throws in brief ruminations on the rise of women’s lib and the commodification of beauty, but these notes are (ironically) only surface-level.
Similarly, Wilson has assembled an interesting coterie of talking heads, from cultural experts like Karina Longworth and Scaachi Koul to famous friends of Shields like Laura Linney (who has been a close pal since childhood), Ali Wentworth, Lionel Richie, Drew Barrymore, and Judd Nelson. But even this assemblage seems, like the film they are a part of, somehow incomplete. Shields talks extensively about her first boyfriend, Dean Cain, but he’s not here. Neither is Agassi. The only member of her family who appears is her stepsister, who is mainly punted to first-part appearances. Shields presumably set parameters around who Wilson could talk to, and while that’s understandable, it’s simply another piece of the puzzle that remains absent. Even now, it seems as if Shields is still drawing lines around things to endure them.
Shields’ discomfort with her youth comes full circle in an undercooked final segment that finds her at home with her husband Chris Henchy (the duo still seem to have a healthy, happy relationship; he is also not a talking head) and their two daughters, Rowan and Grier, who is pursuing her own modeling career. So, what’s that like? While Shields expresses worry and concern about her youngest going after a career path that is still, in so many ways, toxic, she also vows her support for her child’s dreams. OK, so … then what?
Chattering about their mom’s storied career, the girls moan and groan — big noooooo, Mommmmm, we never want to see “The Blue Lagoon,” ewwwww energy — and it’s all handled with a giggle, a titter. Of course they wouldn’t want to see their mom in such a position. But then again, why did any of us? That’s the single most important question of not just Shields’ life but of the many women who came before and will undoubtedly come after her. But no one answers it.
“Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The two-part documentary will air on Hulu via ABC News later this year.
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