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Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields opens with a long-ago recorded chat show host Mike Douglas interview that feels patronizing and awkwardly fawning. Shields gives us an oral history laced with ephemera from her life from infancy to the modern day. But she said of her fame: “It felt arbitrary and not merited.”

Is someone born with the lion’s mane of hair, perfect features, and length of limb as Brooke was, suffering imposter syndrome? Tale as old as time: Girls are under pressure to be physically perfect. What is perfect and how cultural shifts decide these markers are the only fluctuation, as it was for Shields, who comic Eddie Murphy described as the “most Caucasian” of women when making light of her friendship with Michael Jackson. Shields had a symmetry and arresting presence that she never had to grow into. She was born with it from day one, unlike many who weather the ugly duckling years until a swan is born. Shields was and is a showstopper in every regard.

Social media and mediocrity of achievement, or complete lack thereof, now dilute the rarified commodity of beauty and talent. The ability to self-market in today’s invasive media pole vaults the discovery process of nurturing a lasting persona and curating a meaningful career. Shields was singularly celebrated for her clock-stopping face and a camera-ready image crafted with uncanny ability by single mother, Terry Shields, described by lifetime friend Laura Linney as “a force of nature.” Brooke’s mother parlayed an Ivory Soap ad shoot with baby Brooke into a lifetime of high-profile gigs she profited from. This New Jersey woman elevated her modest profile by recognizing the star in Brooke. Dad was relegated to background noise but stable and from a monied family. His influence lessened as Brooke rose the ranks as a print model, then, fortunately, it was reasserted when her college years approached.

The documentary artfully reveals how the 1960s and the ballyhooed womanly wifely ideal disappeared, replaced by the fetishized underage female in the 1970s in Madison Avenue’s zeal for exploitative ads with sexualized girls to sell products. Brooke was part of that disturbing trend that led to the controversial Louis Malle intentionally ambiguous 1978 film Pretty Baby, where the prepubescent virginal daughter of a New Orleans prostitute is sold off to the highest bidder in a brothel. “All I ever wanted to be was an actress,” said Shields, whose jaw-dropping film debut continued her child sexpot trajectory. Pretty Baby‘s kiss scene with Keith Carradine, described by Shields in retrospect, is chilling in Malle’s casual and intimidating direction to the younger Shields. However, she reveals that experience taught her how to compartmentalize trauma to get through the artistic challenge in front of her. The narrative of Shields’s life changed from a print ad model to an “exploited child porn star” as the growing celebrity entertainment news and star rags made hay regurgitating every lurid angle. In this frenzy, Terry Shields’ decisions and alcoholism became a focal point for these talking heads and critical chatter.

As in many child-adult relationships where the parent’s addiction is a factor, the child thrusts into survival and protector mode, as it was for Brooke, who was dealing with Terry’s issues as her own fame rose. The Adam and Eve parallel in Shields’ subsequent film, Blue Lagoon, depicting teen lust and love flew in the face of her Catholic upbringing and her shame about sex talk in general. This film led to Shields reverting to a supermodel role as she starred in a particularly racy Calvin Klein jean ad campaign that launched a frenzied consumer quest for these denim pants. The ads perpetuated the sexualized Lolita persona that all were happy to attach to virgin Shields through this hyped-up lathered male gaze marketing. No surprise, the women’s movement latched on to them as indicative of how men in every industry used very young women to elicit interest and generate sales. “So I’m a bad boy, what do you want?” said a cornered Calvin Klein when asked by Diane Sawyer about this tasteless transgression in a telling interview.

And then came the 1980s. “I fell in love with her,” said Franco Zeffirelli to Mike Douglas in a creepy as hell Endless Love promo interview with Shields sitting next to them, unsure how to react as he described feelings of ecstasy, something she wasn’t even sure what it was as the director twisted her toe off camera to get “the look.” Her sweet closeness to Michael Jackson is covered, revealing that he was more obsessed about being in her company than she was with him, to the point that she cut it off. Time magazine made her a cover girl and cemented her place as a celebrity icon who was not quickly definable. Then a widely reported leaked nude photo controversy was on the heels of the highly publicized legal fallout, and as all of this unfolded, Terry’s alcoholism spiraled. Brooke was growing up on camera and had to step in as a parent to help manage Terry’s flagging sobriety. Shields recalled these moments, torn about her mother’s struggles: “She was just broken.”

Gatekeeping by the industry and gender conformity and control are woven into Brooke’s early year’s events as a cultural allegory and discussed by Deborah Tolman, author of Growing Up Girl. To Terry’s credit, she did not manipulate Brooke to quit school when college was on the horizon. The relationships after the faux Michael Jackson romance media blitz yielded Brooke’s first serious boyfriend, Dean Cain. The big chill of her four-year college detour and hard road back to fame dotted with infomercials, Japanese commercials, and pantyhose adverts shows off Shields’ work ethic.
To hear John Tesh have the temerity to ask a young 20-something Brooke if “Hollywood takes her seriously anymore” is the height of irony. Later we learn Shields endured a rape. Her security guard Gavin De Becker emotionally breaks down, describing how he could not protect his client, who was like a little sister, is gutting footage.

The nineties yielded a relationship with tennis star Andre Agassi that blossomed by facsimile. It also was the decade she cleaved the umbilical cord from Terry in a trade-off to this controlling man (Agassi) she married and from whom she then had to part ways. Friend Ali Wentworth talks about the career pivot Shields found—post-Agassi divorce— to comedy sitcom fame and fortune in Suddenly Susan.

Despite the show’s success, the executives were content to try to contain Brooke in a pratfall loop, and she fought for her creative control. Shields found happiness in a new relationship (Chris Henchy) and in motherhood as time progressed. Still, it was not without medical complications for Shields, whose severe post-partum depression with her first daughter had to be addressed by outside help. Her book Down Came The Rain chronicled the episode. Strangely, actor Tom Cruise came top-gunning for her on chat shows. In 2005, Shields penned a New York Times essay that surgically unpinned every Scientology-driven argument Cruise threw her way as it heralded the beginning of his public image demise.

Shields was and is many things. She was an achieving Princeton student, model, actor, friend, a good daughter, a caring mother, and a regular girl who would talk about the Mets with fans on the streets. Yet, she weathered all the hurtful and often inappropriate chatter with class, humor, and the least appreciated star quality, kindness. That ultimately was the fuel that kept her career still viable today. People just loved her. They felt for her. Still do.

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April Neale

April Neale is an entertainment writer and television critic. Neale has read her work both on NPR and 'Spoken Interludes', and has previously written for various industry trades and entertainment websites. Neale has written for Monsters and Critics since 2003, and is an editor and main contributor to the TV, Film and Culture (formerly Lifestyle) sections.