Pretty Baby (1978 film)

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Pretty Baby
Pretty baby poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Louis Malle
Produced by Louis Malle
Polly Platt (associate)
Written by Polly Platt (story)
Louis Malle (story)
Polly Platt (screenplay)
Starring Brooke Shields
Keith Carradine
Susan Sarandon
Music by Ferdinand Morton
Cinematography Sven Nykvist
Edited by Suzanne Fenn
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release dates
  • April 5, 1978 (1978-04-05) (USA)
  • May 24, 1978 (1978-05-24) (France)
Running time 109 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $5,786,368

Pretty Baby is a 1978 American historical fiction and drama film directed by Louis Malle, and starring Brooke Shields, Keith Carradine, and Susan Sarandon. The screenplay was written by Polly Platt. The plot focuses on a 12-year-old prostitute in the red-light district of New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century.

The title of the film is inspired by the Tony Jackson song, "Pretty Baby", which is used in the soundtrack. Although the film was mostly praised by critics, it was wildly controversial due to its depiction of child prostitution and scenes of the nude Brooke Shields, who was 12 years old.

Plot summary[edit]

In 1917, during the last months of legal prostitution in Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans, Louisiana, Hattie is a prostitute working at an elegant brothel run by the elderly, cocaine-sniffing Madame Nell. Hattie has given birth to a baby boy and has a 12-year-old daughter, Violet, who lives in the house. When photographer Ernest J. Bellocq comes with his camera, Hattie and Violet are the only people awake. He asks to be allowed to take photographs of the women. Madame Nell agrees only after he offers to pay.

Bellocq becomes a fixture in the brothel, photographing the prostitutes, mostly Hattie. His activities fascinate Violet, though she believes he is falling in love with her mother, which makes her jealous. Violet is a restless child, frustrated by the long, precise process Bellocq must go through to pose and take pictures.

Nell decides that Violet is old enough for her virginity to be auctioned off. After a bidding war among regulars, Violet is bought by an apparently quiet customer. This first sexual experience is unpleasant. Hattie, meanwhile, aspires to escape prostitution. She marries a customer and leaves for St. Louis without her daughter, whom her husband believes to be her sister. Hattie promises to return for Violet, once she’s settled and has broken the news to the new spouse.

Violet runs away from the brothel after being punished for some hijinks, appearing on Bellocq’s doorstep. The two become lovers, although Violet needs a great deal of attention and is frustrated by Bellocq’s devotion to his work, as much as he is frustrated by her lack of "maturity" and endless tantrums. For his part, Bellocq is entranced by Violet’s beauty, youth, and photogenic face.

Violet eventually returns to Nell’s after quarreling with Bellocq, but social reform groups are forcing the brothels of Storyville to close. Bellocq arrives to wed Violet, ostensibly to protect her from the larger world.

Immediately following the wedding, Hattie and her husband arrive from St. Louis. They claim that Violet’s marriage is illegal without their consent and plan to take her back with them. Violet would like her husband to go with her, but he lets her go, realizing that a conventional life, and schooling, will benefit her greatly.

Main cast[edit]

Shields and Carradine (center left) and Sarandon (center right) in a setting with costumes and poses inspired by the historic photos of Ernest J. Bellocq

Film music[edit]

ABC Records released a soundtrack of the film's ragtime score, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Original Music Score in the "Adaptation Score" category.

Content and rating[edit]

Pretty Baby received an R rating in the U.S., an 18 rating in the U.K., and an R18+ rating in Australia, for nudity and sexual content. Continuing controversy over Shields' nude scenes resulted in the film being banned in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Saskatchewan. Gossip columnist Rona Barrett called the film "child pornography," and director Louis Malle allegedly was portrayed as a "combination of Lolita's Humbert Humbert and controversial director Roman Polanski".[1]

In addition to the issue of child prostitution, the scenes involving a nude 12-year-old Brooke Shields were controversial.[1] The BBFC originally censored two scenes for the film's cinema release in the UK to remove nudity, but the uncut version was released on DVD in 2006.[2] This same uncut print is the basis of the Region 1 and Region 2 DVD editions worldwide.[3]

Reception[edit]

Box office[edit]

Pretty Baby earned $5.8 million in the United States.[4]

Critical reception[edit]

The film received mostly positive reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 79% of 14 critics had given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 6.9 out of 10.[5]

The issues of prostitution and child pornography were not far from critics' thoughts. In his New York Times review Vincent Canby wrote: "Mr. Malle, the French director ... has made some controversial films in his time but none, I suspect, that is likely to upset convention quite as much as this one – and mostly for the wrong reasons. Though the setting is a whorehouse, and the lens through which we see everything is Violet, who ... herself becomes one of Nell's chief attractions, Pretty Baby is neither about child prostitution nor is it pornographic." Canby ended his review with the claim that Pretty Baby is "... the most imaginative, most intelligent, and most original film of the year to date".[6]

Similarly, Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert discussed how "... Pretty Baby has been attacked in some quarters as child porn. It's not. It's an evocation of a time and a place and a sad chapter of Americana."[7] He also praised Shields' performance, writing that she "... really creates a character here; her subtlety and depth are astonishing."[7]

On the other hand, Variety's wrote that "the film is handsome, the players nearly all effective, but the story highlights are confined within a narrow range of ho-hum dramatization."[8] Asheville, North Carolina, Mountain Xpress critic Ken Hanke, looking at the film from the perspective of 2003, said of Pretty Baby: "It was once shocking and dull. Now it's just dull."[5]

Awards[edit]

The film won the Technical Grand Prize at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival.[9]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b McMurran, Kristen. "Pretty Brooke", People (May 29, 1978).
  2. ^ "BBFC Case Study: Pretty Baby (1978)". 
  3. ^ "Rewind DVD comparison". 
  4. ^ Pretty Baby, Internet Movie Database. Accessed May 6, 2010.
  5. ^ a b "Pretty Baby (1978)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved May 6, 2010.
  6. ^ Canby, Vincent. "Critic's Pick: Pretty Baby," The New York Times (April 5, 1978).
  7. ^ a b Ebert, Roger. "Pretty Baby," Chicago Sun-Times (June 1, 1978).
  8. ^ Variety Staff. "Pretty Baby" Variety (January 1, 1978). Accessed May 6, 2010.
  9. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Pretty Baby". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved May 21, 2009. 

External links[edit]