Pretty Baby (1978 film)
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)
|Music by||Ferdinand Morton|
|Editing by||Suzanne Fenn|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Running time||109 minutes|
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 at the time due to the depiction of child prostitution and scenes of the nude Brooke Shields, who was 12 years old at the time.
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.
- Brooke Shields as Violet
- Keith Carradine as E. J. Bellocq
- Susan Sarandon as Hattie
- Frances Faye as Nell
- Antonio Fargas as Professor
- Matthew Anton as Red Top
- Diana Scarwid as Frieda
- Barbara Steele as Josephine
- Seret Scott as Flora
- Cheryl Markowitz as Gussie
- Susan Manskey as Fanny
- Laura Zimmerman as Agnes
- Miz Mary as Odette
- Gerrit Graham as Highpockets
- Mae Mercer as Mama Mosebery
Content and rating
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".
In addition to the issue of child prostitution, the scenes involving a nude 12-year-old Brooke Shields were controversial. As a result, the original 109-minute film was edited to 106 minutes in some releases. The full 109-minute version is available on DVD. However, all existing DVD versions are censored by reframing: zooming forward to show less of the scene than the cinema or VHS versions. This was done whenever Shields is completely nude to avoid showing her pubic area or buttocks. The properly framed version circulates online, but this version is sourced from either TV broadcasts or the Laserdisc, and the quality is significantly lower than on the DVD.
Pretty Baby earned $5.8 million in the United States.
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. While many reviewers praised the film's dreamy evocation of 1917 brothel life – and the performances of Sarandon, Shields, and Carradine – some found the slow pacing and languid acting a dull viewing experience.
Understandably, the issues of prostitution and child pornography were not far from critics' thoughts. In his review, The New York Times 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.."
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." He also praised Shields' performance, writing that she "... really creates a character here; her subtlety and depth are astonishing."
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." And 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."
- McMurran, Kristen. "Pretty Brooke", People (May 29, 1978).
- Pretty Baby, Internet Movie Database. Accessed May 6, 2010.
- "Pretty Baby (1978)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved May 6, 2010.
- Canby, Vincent. "Critic's Pick: Pretty Baby," New York Times (April 5, 1978).
- Ebert, Roger. "Pretty Baby," Chicago Sun-Times (June 1, 1978).
- Variety Staff. "Pretty Baby" Variety (January 1, 1978). Accessed May 6, 2010.
- "Festival de Cannes: Pretty Baby". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 2009-05-21.
- Pretty Baby at the Internet Movie Database
- Pretty Baby at allmovie
- Pretty Baby at Rotten Tomatoes
- Making of Pretty Baby: Photo Gallery