“Pretty Baby,” a two-part documentary about the intense highs and lows of American icon Brooke Shields, brought the house down with its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday.
The doc 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 around what society expects of women.
Directed by Lana Wilson (Taylor Swift’s “Miss Americana”), “Pretty Baby” confronts milestones in Shields’ life that, in a post #MeToo world, shocked the audience at Park City’s Eccles Theater. 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 the likes of Tom Cruise are all on the table.
“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 following the premiere of the doc, which received a standing ovation. “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.”
An interesting mix of taking heads from her life populate the doc to offer insights. Childhood friend Laura Linney, Lionel Richie, Ali Wentworth, and security czar Gavin de Becker all pop up. Drew Barrymore, sitting cross-legged and barefoot on a stool, corroborated the confusion and difficulties that come with child stardom. A particularly cringey moment came during a section on “Blue Lagoon,” the landmark movie about virile teenagers in love on a deserted island. Director Randal Kleiser, the doc alleges, 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 agency over her mind, over her career, over her future. I found it remarkable and very contemporary in so many ways,” Wilson told the audience.
Throughout her adulthood, Shields describes her attraction to a figure she claimed to be as “controlling” as her own mother –- the tennis star Andre Agassi, who she says was wracked with jealousy while she broke out in sitcoms like “Friends” and “Suddenly Susan.” The battles weren’t all private.
After marrying now-husband Chris Henchy, Shields struggled with conception. After many attempts, she delivered daughter Rowan and immediately slipped into an unknown and extreme depression. In 2005, she authored the book “Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression.”
At the same time Shields was promoting the book, Tom Cruise was making the rounds for his Steven Spielberg-directed action 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 doc, Shields reflected on the incident as “ridiculous.”
During one scene of the documentary, 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 Eccles applauded in delight, and did so again after actor Judd Nelson quotes his friend Shields at the time: “Tom Cruise should stick to fighting aliens.”