Here’s the film that introduced the world to Brooke Sheilds’ eyebrows.
As a 12-year-old daughter of a prostitute (Susan Sarandon) in 1917 New Orleans (when hooking was legal), Sheilds’ Violet immediately becomes one of the most memorable characters in the last 30 years of cinema. But let’s be honest, a lot of that is due to the unbridled eroticism of her role. She’s not just often naked and carousing, she’s pretty blase about it. This is a 12-year-old with about twice the world-weariness of Kramer vs. Kramer‘s Justin Henry.
Director Louis Malle always had a reputation for making movies that didn’t really have traditional plot structures (My Dinner with Andre, Atlantic City), and Pretty Baby is no exception. It meanders along, watching its main character as mom teaches her the ropes of the flesh trade, as her virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder, and as she marries a photographer (Keith Carradine), who’s been casually documenting the goings-on. There’s a case to be made that Violet’s life doesn’t need a lot of artificial drama when her daily life is fraught with such events, and Malle clearly wants us to think about her plight during the long, slow stretches that play out over the hot days of the Louisiana bayou country. Do we? Yes and no. Malle gives us so much time to ponder that it’s easy to get a little bored. There’s also the little matter that few of us have much emotional reaction to child prostitution beyond the mere horror of the situation, weakening any moral quandaries posed regarding Violet’s bored acceptance of her station in life.
A mid-career work for Malle, this stands as one of the best films in his hit-and-miss career. It’s shocking without being overtly graphic and ugly (see Irreversible) and its placement of the then-innocent Shields (she’d shed that two years later in The Blue Lagoon) in one of cinema’s toughest roles makes Pretty Baby worthy of strong consideration.