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|
|Release date(s)||April 5, 1978|
|Running time||109 minutes|
Pretty Baby is a 1978 historical fiction drama film directed by Louis Malle. The screenplay was written by Polly Platt. The title 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 controversial at the time, especially for its treatment of child prostitution and the scenes of the nude Brooke Shields, who was 12 years old at the time.
Plot summary 
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 just given birth to a baby boy and has a 12-year-old daughter, Violet, who also lives at the house. When photographer Ernest J. Bellocq comes by with his camera, Hattie and Violet are the only ones awake. He asks to be allowed to take photographs of the women. Madame Nell only agrees after he offers to pay.
Bellocq becomes a fixture in the brothel, taking many photographs of the prostitutes, mostly of Hattie. His activities fascinate Violet, though she believes he is falling in love with her mother, which makes her jealous. Violet is also a restless child, and frustrated by the long, precise process Bellocq must go through to pose and take his pictures.
Nell decides that Violet is old enough for her virginity to be auctioned off. After a bidding war between regulars, Violet is bought by an apparently quiet customer, but this first sexual experience is unpleasant. Hattie, meanwhile, aspires to escape prostitution. She marries one of her customers and goes to St. Louis without her daughter, whom her husband believes to be her sister. Hattie promises to return for Violet once she’s settled and broken the news to her new spouse.
Violet runs away from the brothel in a fit of temper after being punished for some hijinks, showing up on Bellocq’s doorstep. The two become lovers, although Violet still 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 constant tantrums; For his part, the older man 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 come with her, but he lets her go, realizing a more conventional life, and schooling, will benefit her more.
Main cast 
- 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
Film music 
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.
Box office 
Pretty Baby earned $5.8 million in the United States.
Critical reception 
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."
See also 
- 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 AllRovi
- Pretty Baby at Rotten Tomatoes
- Making of Pretty Baby: Photo Gallery