Brooke Shields Speaks Out: Addressing Her Controversial Scene in Pretty Baby

Brooke Shields Speaks Out: Addressing Her Controversial Scene in Pretty Baby

In 1978, a 12-year-old Brooke Shields took on a controversial role in Louis Malle’s film Pretty Baby, where she portrayed a child streetworker in early 20th century New Orleans. The film received critical acclaim for its artistic value, but it was also heavily criticized for featuring nude scenes involving Shields, who was underage at the time. More than four decades later, Shields continues to reflect on this breakout role, which brought her fame but also stripped away much of her childhood innocence.

Brooke Shields’ Rise to Fame as a Child Model and Actress

Brooke Shields’ journey to fame began almost from birth. Born in New York City in 1965, Shields initially had a passion for dance. However, her striking features and piercing blue eyes caught the attention of fashion photographers, and by the age of 11 months, she had already landed significant modeling jobs, appearing in numerous advertisements and catalogs. Her mother, Teri Shields, an actress herself, took on the role of her manager, fiercely protecting her daughter as she navigated the demanding entertainment industry. Teri ensured that Brooke had a well-rounded childhood, making sure she attended school and participated in activities like the Girl Scouts.

Despite these efforts to maintain a semblance of normalcy, it was evident that Shields was destined for the limelight. At the age of 4, she starred in an Ivory Snow soap advertisement, famously delivering the tagline “99 & 44/100% pure.” This was just the beginning, as more modeling opportunities soon followed with major brands like Band-Aids and Colgate. When she was 15, Shields’ career took another leap with controversial Calvin Klein jeans ads, further solidifying her status as an American icon.

Shields’ early success in modeling paved the way for her acting career. She made her film debut at the age of 10 in Alice Sweet Alice (1976), playing a supporting role as a murder victim. Although her part was small, it showcased her maturity and on-screen presence. The following year, Shields appeared in two network TV movies, which, although not critically acclaimed, provided her with valuable experience and prepared her for the significant role that would come next.

The Making of Pretty Baby and Its Controversial Content

The making of Pretty Baby was a pivotal experience for the young Brooke Shields, though the film was steeped in controversy due to its provocative content. Directed by renowned French filmmaker Louis Malle, the film aimed to create a stylized portrayal of New Orleans’ notorious red-light district, Storyville, in 1917. Shields was cast as Violet, a 12-year-old girl growing up in a brothel, subjected to early sexualization and objectification.

The script required Shields to appear nude in several scenes, including one where her character’s virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder. Shields endured grueling work hours on set, often filming for 14 hours a day in the sweltering New Orleans heat while wearing restrictive period costumes. She spent considerable time posing for photographs taken by E.J. Bellocq, a character played by Keith Carradine, who becomes enchanted by Violet’s youth and beauty.

Despite the mature themes and challenging scenes, Shields has maintained that she never felt exploited on set. She credits Malle for his professional approach and vision, as well as the kindness of her co-stars, particularly Carradine, who helped her feel comfortable during the more difficult scenes. In one notable instance, Carradine had to teach Shields how to fake a movie kiss, as she had never been kissed before. He reassured her that their kiss wouldn’t count, which helped ease her anxiety.

Nevertheless, the ethics of involving a child in such explicit scenarios raised significant concerns. Rumors spread that Shields’ mother, Teri, was often combative on set, defending her daughter from perceived exploitation. Despite Teri’s firm belief in the artistic value of the film, the public reaction upon Pretty Baby‘s release was far less forgiving.

Public Outrage and Censorship of Pretty Baby

The release of Pretty Baby ignited a firestorm of public outrage and censorship, focusing on the sexualization of the young Brooke Shields. When the film premiered in 1978, the media frenzy depicted it as sordid and exploitative. Headlines sensationalized the controversy, with a People magazine cover proclaiming, “Brooke Shields, 12, stirs furor over child porn.” Critics accused Malle of pedophilia and exploiting Shields, and rumors circulated about graphic nude scenes being cut from the final film.

The controversy reached a peak when Pretty Baby screened at the Cannes Film Festival. The atmosphere was hostile, with one angry onlooker even attempting to cut Shields’ hair before being restrained. The experience was traumatizing for the young star, who found the festival’s atmosphere overwhelming and unsettling.

Due to the film’s provocative reputation, several regions implemented bans to prevent its screening. In Canada, Pretty Baby faced nationwide prohibition, with some provinces maintaining the ban for many years. Grassroots organizations like the Canadian Civil Liberties Union advocated for the film as a free speech issue, arguing that adults should have the right to judge its artistic merits for themselves. Despite these efforts, many detractors viewed the film as legitimizing pedophilia.

South Africa also banned the film under its apartheid regime, citing concerns over its impact on traditional values. However, underground screenings still occurred, and the government ordered edits to the original cut, such as removing scenes featuring Shields in the nude.

The intense backlash against Pretty Baby highlighted the ongoing struggle between censorship and freedom of expression, a debate that continues to this day. While the film won awards and was praised for its boundary-pushing art, the ethical implications of its production sparked a significant cultural conflict.

Brooke Shields’ Perspective Looking Back on Pretty Baby

More than 40 years later, Brooke Shields still holds complex feelings about Pretty Baby, the film that launched her into the spotlight at such a young age. She cherishes the film as a significant artistic achievement but also acknowledges its problematic aspects from today’s perspective.

Shields remains proud of Pretty Baby, considering it the most creative project she has ever been part of. She admires the skill and vision behind the film and believes that her unpolished performance added authenticity to her character’s journey from innocence to maturity. However, Shields recognizes that a film like Pretty Baby would be unthinkable today. As a mother, she would never allow her own daughter to take on a similar role, understanding the drastically different societal views on exploitation and child actors.

While she stops short of renouncing the film, Shields maintains a nuanced view of her breakout role. She emphasizes that meaningful art often arises from pushing boundaries and confronting uncomfortable truths. Despite its faults, Shields believes Pretty Baby effectively highlighted troubling social issues that were often ignored.

The intense experience of making Pretty Baby gave Shields insight into the emotional toll of early stardom. The close bonds she formed on set and the subsequent dissolution of those relationships left a lasting impact on her. At the fragile age of 12, she withdrew from acting temporarily, wary of experiencing similar heartache again. Though her early career was far from conventional, Shields feels she emerged stronger from the challenges she faced.

Brooke Shields’ Continued Acting Career and Advocacy

Although Pretty Baby was the height of controversy in Brooke Shields’ early career, she demonstrated remarkable resilience, leveraging her fame as an actress and model into advocacy work focused on protecting child performers. After a brief hiatus from acting, Shields returned to the screen, eager to take on more substantive roles. She delivered notable performances in films such as Franco Zeffirelli’s Endless Love (1981) and the cult classic The Blue Lagoon (1980).

Shields also pursued higher education, graduating from Princeton University in 1987, a rare achievement for a child star. Her modeling career continued to thrive, with high-profile campaigns and magazine covers keeping her in the public eye.

Drawing from her own experiences, Shields became a vocal advocate for reforming how the entertainment industry treats child actors. She testified before Congress on the need for better protections against abuse and exploitation. Additionally, she served on the Board of Directors for the Child Mind Institute, focusing on children’s mental health issues.

Now in her late 50s, Shields remains active in her acting career, with recent appearances in television shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and films such as The Christmas Sweater. She continues to use her platform to speak out against the exploitation of minors in the entertainment industry, emphasizing the importance of prioritizing children’s well-being over profit or accolades.

Through her advocacy, Shields aims to ensure that future generations of child stars are better protected and supported, transforming her personal hardships into a force for meaningful change. Pretty Baby may have marked a tumultuous beginning to her career, but Brooke Shields’ enduring resilience and dedication to reform have solidified her legacy as both an iconic performer and a passionate advocate for children’s rights.

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