Pretty Baby (1978 film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Louis Malle|
|Produced by||Louis Malle
Polly Platt (associate)
|Screenplay by||Polly Platt|
|Story by||Polly Platt
|Music by||Ferdinand Morton|
|Edited by||Suzanne Fenn|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
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 caused significant controversy due to its depiction of child prostitution and the nude scenes of Brooke Shields, who was 12 years old.
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. She appears on Bellocq’s doorstep and asks him if he will sleep with her and take care of her. He initially says no, but then the two become lovers. In some ways, their relationship resembles one between a parent and child, with Bellocq standing in for Violet's absent mother. Bellocq even buys Violet a doll, telling her that "every child should have a doll." Bellocq is entranced by Violet’s beauty, youth, and photogenic face. She is frustrated by Bellocq’s devotion to his photography, as much as he is frustrated by her lack of maturity and endless tantrums.
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.
Two weeks after the wedding, Hattie and her husband arrive from St. Louis to collect Violet, claiming that her marriage is illegal without their consent. Bellocq does not want to let Violet go. Violet asks if he will go with her and her family. Upon hearing that she does in fact want to go with them, he lets her leave without him, realizing that schooling and a more conventional life will benefit her greatly.
- Keith Carradine as E. J. Bellocq
- Brooke Shields as Violet
- 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
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Content and rating
Pretty Baby received an R rating in the U.S., an X 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 until it was repealed in 1995. 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. 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. This same uncut print is the basis of the Region 1 and Region 2 DVD editions worldwide.
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.
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."
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 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." 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).
- "BBFC Case Study: Pretty Baby (1978)".
- "Rewind DVD comparison".
- 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," The 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 May 21, 2009.