Brooke Shields has been in the public eye since she was just 11 months old, but it's taken her 57 years to embrace her power as an actor, model, and businesswoman. In Pretty Baby, a new documentary from Lana Wilson (who previously directed Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana), Shields examines just how far she's come after a career of being objectified by Hollywood and commodified by American culture. Across two episodes, the multi-hyphenate reflects on her controversial role in Louis Malle's 1978 film Pretty Baby, The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love's impact on her public image and sense of self, her complicated relationship with her mother and manager, Teri, and her brief marriage to tennis player Andre Agassi. Shields also alleges she was raped by a film executive when she was in her twenties, and she opens up about the blame she placed upon herself in the aftermath.
In addition to Shields, Pretty Baby features appearances from Drew Barrymore, Laura Linney, Lionel Richie, and more stars, each of whom offers a window into their personal relationship with Shields and her journey through a hostile industry. These interviews make for a comprehensive look at the outsized demands Hollywood makes of young women, a problem that persists even in 2023.
If you think you know Brooke Shields' story, think again. These are the seven biggest takeaways from Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields on Hulu:
Shields made her feature debut in 1976 slasher film Alice, Sweet Alice, but her breakout role came two years later in Pretty Baby, Louis Malle's film about a precocious 12-year-old girl, Violet, raised in a brothel in early-20th-century New Orleans. Pretty Baby featured two nude scenes of Shields — like Violet, the actress was just 12 years old during filming — and an on-screen kiss with co-star Keith Carradine, whose character begins a sexual relationship with the child. At the time of its release, the film prompted significant criticism for its depiction of child sex work and underage nudity, something Shields says her mother and manager, Teri Shields, "didn't even bat an eye" at throughout production.
In the documentary, Shields recalls feeling intimidated by her scenes with 29-year-old Carradine. "No one helped me. I was there to say these lines, to do it without any education about how to do it. That's what Louis wanted," she says, explaining that she "had never kissed anybody before" and didn't "know how to do" it.
"Every time Keith tried to do the kiss, I would scrunch my face up, and Louis got upset with me," says Shields. "Keith was the one who asked to have a word with me and said to me, 'Hey, you know what? This doesn't count. It's pretend. This is all make-believe.'"
As a result, Shields "learned how to compartmentalize," which became a "survival technique" for the young model-actress. "That's not my life," she remembers thinking. "That's not who I am."
Shields has been open about her mother's alcohol abuse in the past — she discussed it at length in her 2014 memoir, There Was a Little Girl: The Real Story of My Mother and Me — but in Hulu's Pretty Baby, she offers additional details about the ways in which Teri's drinking affected their relationship and her career. The actress reveals that she "never knew [Teri] not drinking," and her friends recall moments in which they noticed a change in Teri's personality and demeanor.
"When Teri was sober, she was raucous and fun and loud and big and took up space. And when she was not in a good way, it was duck and cover," says Ozark star Laura Linney, one of Shields' childhood friends. "I would follow [Brooke's] lead. She would know what to do, how to do it, how to protect herself, what room to go into, what doors to lock."
As Shields' career took off, Teri's behavior became more erratic, which took a toll. "I knew what to expect from my work; you never really knew what to expect with an alcoholic," she explains. "It wasn't abusive, but it was emotionally abusive because I felt abandoned every time she wasn't herself."
By the 1990s, Shields realized that her mother "was going to self-destruct," and after her attempts to take control over her own career were rebuffed, she fired Teri as her manager. "She was completely broken," says Shields. "She never forgave me for that."
Teri died in 2012, but Shields admits that because her mother developed dementia before her death, "there was no real closure or anything beautiful about it." She adds, "You raise your kids to let them fly. My flying was the thing that most terrified her. And then she was gone."
In 1980, Shields became one of the most recognizable faces in the world thanks to her role in coming-of-age romance The Blue Lagoon — in which she and Christopher Atkins played children who fall in love while marooned on a tropical island — and her viral ad campaign for Calvin Klein jeans. Despite being just 14 years old at the time, the media portrayed Shields as a teenage sex symbol, but in reality, she "had a lot of shame" about intimacy. "The irony was, I wasn't in touch with my own sexuality," she says. "I was raised Catholic. With sex, they taught me, 'Wait until you're married. Wait until you're married.' And it was put into my brain."
Shields goes on to say that throughout her life, she was underestimated and considered "a pretty face" or a "sex symbol," a reputation that denied her true self. "That always just seared me because the nerdy, kind of dorky person that was creative and intelligent was the core of who I was," she says.
It wasn't until college that Shields was able to take ownership over her own image and sexuality. She began dating Dean Cain, who went on to star in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, while at Princeton and lost her virginity to him at the age of 22. While Shields looks back fondly on their relationship — she laughs as she remembers running away, "butt naked," after having sex with Cain for the first time — she admits she "feel[s] bad for that girl" who lost out on time spent exploring her own desires.
Shortly before Shields went away to college, she and her mother were embroiled in a lawsuit involving nude images taken in 1975, when she was 10 years old, for Playboy Press. After a lengthy legal battle, a New York court ruled in favor of photographer Garry Gross, who sought to capitalize on the star's fame and re-release the images as part of a special collection.
Interestingly, Shields doesn't have a problem with the images themselves — which she describes as "a dual look at young girls in two different settings" — but rather the fact that her public image "was on trial." She also takes issue with the way "the prick" Gross approached the situation, explaining, "I was hurt more by the breach of trust and friendship than I ever was uncomfortable about the nature of the photo."
"It was the way I was treated by the men associated with the whole thing," she says. "It was as low-rent, low-class – there was zero integrity in it. And to me, that was so angering and hurtful."
One year after The Blue Lagoon, Shields made waves with Endless Love, a drama about teens whose parents disapprove of their passionate relationship. (The film's tagline was "She is 15. He is 17. The love every parent fears.") Once again, the 15-year-old actress was required to dramatize a sexual situation, something that "felt really dangerous" after her previous film experience. "I didn't trust the director [Franco Zeffirelli] to create a safe environment for me," she says.
Wilson intercuts Shields' present-day interview with archival footage of Zeffirelli explaining that he "grabbed [her] toe and twisted it" to get "the impact that the scene required." Decades later, Shield corroborates this account. "Zeffirelli kept grabbing my toe and twisting it so I had a look of, I guess, ecstasy. But it was more angst than anything because he was hurting me," she recalls. "His thing was, 'The look on your face, it has to be ecstasy.' And I was like, 'I don't know what that is!'"
To deal with this trauma, Shields "dissociated," just as she did on the set of Pretty Baby. "You instantly become a vapor of yourself around something that's happening," she says. But this came at a cost. "I was really shut down after that. I thought of myself as the workhorse. They pay me; I did the thing; they sold it; everybody's happy. It was transactional."
Content Warning: The following description contains graphic details of sexual assault.
The most damning allegation in Pretty Baby comes in Part Two, when Shields reveals she was sexually assaulted by a Hollywood film executive more than 30 years ago. After graduating from Princeton in 1987, the actress struggled to book film roles, and she fell back on modeling and commercial gigs. Finally, a studio expressed interest in working with her on a film, and she met with an executive about moving forward. "I had met this person before and he was always nice to me," she recalls. "But then the person's behavior was changing, and there was no talk about the movie."
When Shields attempted to leave, the executive convinced her to let him call a cab from his hotel. There, the man sexually assaulted her; she describes "wrestling" and being "afraid [she] was going to get choked out" by him. "I played the scene out in my head: the run away and the pull back and the beat the sh*t out of [me]. I was just like, 'No. No. No,'" she says. Shields explains that she "absolutely froze," thinking it was the best way to "stay alive and get out," and remembers "disassociating" from the assault.
Shields admits she's "most ashamed" of the "part of [her] that felt cool" afterwards. She also reveals she blamed herself for the attack, saying, "I believed, somehow, I put out a message and that was how the message was received. I drank wine at dinner; I went up to the room. I just was so trusting."
The star goes on to say that she coped by writing the executive a letter detailing his breach of trust. ("I'm better than you are, actually," she says of the letter's tone.) But when the letter was "dismissed," she chose to block out the assault, preferring to "erase the whole thing from [her] mind and body" and move forward.
Shields came up in the world of drama, but in the mid-1990s, she showcased her comedy chops as Rizzo in the Broadway revival of Grease and in Friends' 1996 post-Super Bowl episode. Few could forget Shields' memorable cameo as Erika, Joey's (Matt LeBlanc) finger-licking stalker: The brief moment led to a lead role in NBC sitcom Suddenly Susan, for which she earned two Golden Globe nominations. In the Pretty Baby documentary, the actress recalls committing fully to the role by "devouring [Joey's] surgeon hands" and unleashing a "crazy laugh," but when tennis champion Andre Agassi, her boyfriend at the time, saw the take, he "stormed out."
"He drove home, and he destroyed every single one of his trophies. Like, smashed Wimbledon. Smashed the French Open," she says. (Shields also detailed this incident in a recent New Yorker profile and her 2014 memoir.) At the time, Shields thought Agassi was just "an intense person," but she later learned he was addicted to crystal meth, which played a role in his "erratic behavior" during their relationship.
In 1999, after two years of marriage, Shields and Agassi divorced. She admits the two "should've just been friends," saying, "I don't think we should've ever been husband and wife. We weren't meant to be each other's lifelong partner or parents of children."
A few years later, Shields met director and producer Chris Henchy, whom she married in 2001. They have two daughters, Rowan and Greer, and the star credits them with changing her life. In the final minutes of the documentary, Shields and her teenage daughters — who are now older than Shields was when she starred in Pretty Baby and The Blue Lagoon — speak frankly about the controversial films that launched her career and why young women and girls are able to take more ownership over their bodies in 2023 than they were in 1978.
"My girls are so in their own bodies and skin — they have their own opinions and they voice them. I wasn't told it was important to have agency. Because my mom could have it for me, or directors I was working with, or the industry," she says. "Now, I'm allowed to be a human being. Having daughters changed me because they taught me that."
Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields is now streaming on Hulu. Join the discussion about the documentary in our forums.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.
TOPICS: Brooke Shields, Hulu, Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, Andre Agassi, Christopher Atkins, Keith Carradine, Lana Wilson, Teri Shields