Pretty Baby 1978: A Controversial Film About Child Prostitution
Pretty Baby is a 1978 American drama film directed by Louis Malle and starring Brooke Shields, Keith Carradine, and Susan Sarandon. The film is set in New Orleans in 1917 and tells the story of Violet, a 12-year-old girl who lives in a brothel with her mother Hattie, a prostitute. Violet is initiated into the world of prostitution by her mother’s lover, a photographer named Bellocq, who becomes obsessed with her.
The film was controversial for its depiction of child nudity and sexuality, and was banned or heavily censored in many countries. The original version of the film was 172 minutes long, but it was cut down to 109 minutes for its theatrical release. The uncut version of the film has been released on VHS and DVD, but it is rare and hard to find. Some scenes from the uncut version include Violet’s first sexual encounter with Bellocq, a lesbian scene between Violet and another girl, and a scene where Violet is raped by a customer.
Pretty Baby received mixed reviews from critics and audiences, but it was nominated for several awards, including an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. The film is considered a cult classic by some fans, and a disturbing exploitation film by others. It has been analyzed by scholars and critics for its themes of innocence, sexuality, power, and exploitation.
The film explores the complex relationship between Violet and Bellocq, who becomes her guardian after Hattie leaves her behind to get married. Bellocq is attracted to Violet’s innocence and beauty, but he also respects her as a person and tries to protect her from the harsh realities of her situation. He even marries her in a mock ceremony, hoping to give her some stability and happiness. However, their marriage is not legally valid, and Violet soon rebels against his authority and runs away with a young customer.
Violet returns to the brothel, where she feels more at home than with Bellocq. She enjoys the attention and money she gets from the men, and she develops a friendship with another young prostitute, Frieda (Diana Scarwid). She also witnesses the darker side of prostitution, such as violence, disease, and addiction. She sees Madame Nell die of a cocaine overdose, and she learns that Hattie’s baby boy has been given away for adoption. She also realizes that Bellocq still loves her and misses her.
The film ends with the closure of Storyville by the federal government. The brothel is raided by the police, and the prostitutes are arrested or dispersed. Violet decides to leave with Bellocq, who promises to take care of her. They board a train together, leaving behind their past lives. As they depart, Violet throws away a doll that Bellocq had given her as a gift, symbolizing her loss of innocence and her transition into adulthood.
The film’s reception was divided by critics and audiences, who either praised its artistic merit and historical accuracy, or condemned its exploitation and sensationalism of child sexuality. The film was banned or heavily censored in many countries, such as Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. In the United States, the film was rated R by the MPAA, but some states imposed stricter ratings or tried to ban it altogether. The film also faced legal challenges from Shields’ own mother, who sued Malle and Paramount Pictures for allegedly violating her daughter’s privacy and contractual rights.
Despite the controversy, the film was a moderate box office success, grossing $5.8 million in the United States on a $3 million budget.  It also received several accolades, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Music for Ferdinand Morton’s score, a Cannes Film Festival Technical Grand Prize for Sven Nykvist’s cinematography, and a National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress for Susan Sarandon. The film also launched Shields’ career as a child star and a sex symbol, making her one of the most recognizable faces of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The film has since gained a cult following among some fans, who appreciate its aesthetic beauty and its daring portrayal of a taboo subject. The film has also been re-evaluated by some critics and scholars, who have analyzed its themes of innocence, sexuality, power, and exploitation in relation to its historical and cultural context. The film has been cited as an influence by other filmmakers, such as Sofia Coppola, who paid homage to it in her 1999 film The Virgin Suicides. The film has also been the subject of a 2023 documentary titled Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, which explores Shields’ life and career as a sexualized child actress and a powerful adult woman.