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Set in 1917 New Orleans and the infamous red light district of Storyville, Louis Malle's Pretty Baby (1978) centers on a beautiful prostitute Hattie (Susan Sarandon) and her 12-year-old "trick baby" daughter Violet (Brooke Shields). Violet, who plays inside the brothel walls and counts the prostitutes as her playmates, stands on the cusp of entering her mother's profession. Raised knowing little beyond the life of the brothel, Violet can imagine nothing else, and tends to romanticize her mother's life, especially when a photographer, E.J. Bellocq (Keith Carradine) arrives to photograph the resident ladies of the evening.
Bellocq, the son of a wealthy Creole family, was a real life photographer of Storyville prostitutes until the district was closed down during World War I in 1917. Violet forms an attachment to Bellocq, even as the fateful night approaches when her virginity will be auctioned off for $400 to the highest bidder by the house madam Nell Livingston (Frances Faye).
Having just given birth to her second child, Will, and restless to escape the brothel, Hattie has dreams of a life outside Storyville. She marries a man from St. Louis who promises to make her a respectable woman. But while Hattie manages to escape, Violet appears destined for a life within the brothel's walls until she moves in with Bellocq and becomes his lover and then wife.
In many ways Pretty Baby is a study of the bell jar life inside the brothel, where artifice and deception rule and the prostitutes seem cut off from the usual human rhythm of marriage and children. Eventually Hattie and her new husband Alfred Fuller (Don Hood) return to whisk Violet out of New Orleans, much to Bellocq's horror.
An understandably controversial production, Pretty Baby was notorious for not only its content centered on a child ushered into a life of prostitution, but for the young age of its star, Brooke Shields, only 12 at the time. Adding a level of questionable sensationalism to the production, was a pre-release campaign that tended to underscore the more salacious aspects of the film, with images of a fully-clothed Shields in her Pretty Baby make-up presented in the pages of Playboy and the promise of lurid content dominating much of the pre-release hype.
Malle admitted in Malle on Malle that he had his own reservations about casting Shields in his film, despite the fact that she was cast before any of the other leads. "It was a very difficult part to cast. I had a lot of mixed thoughts about asking a child to go through these very disturbing scenes. I felt I had a moral responsibility." Malle anticipated a backlash to the controversial subject matter by having a woman write the screenplay. Polly Platt was a production designer whose only previous screenwriting experience was Targets (1968) whose story credit she shared with ex-husband Peter Bogdanovich. Malle's initial interest in New Orleans was the region's music, but in The Films of Louis Malle, authors Nathan Southern and Jacques Weissgerber suggest it was Platt's discovery of Lee Friedlander's book E.J. Bellocq: Storyville Portraits at the Museum of Modern Art that inspired her decision to write Pretty Baby.
The production was marred with problems and disagreements from the very beginning. Platt and Malle did not see eye to eye in the casting of Bellocq for one thing. Platt wanted old friend Jack Nicholson to play the photographer as a more physically grotesque type. Historical accounts of the real Bellocq describe him as an extremely short, physically deformed hydrocephalic. Malle resented Platt approaching Nicholson without his permission, and insisted that the more conventionally handsome Keith Carradine play the part.
Some saw parallels between child prostitute Violet, an actual Storyville prostitute whose life is recounted in author Al Rose's Storyville, New Orleans and actress Brooke Shields' professional experience. In Pretty Baby Violet is sold into sex by her mother and some saw an analogous profiteering from Brooke's precocious beauty in her stage mother Teri Shields' behavior. Many have commented upon how Brooke's early modeling career emotionally hardened her in a way that jibed well with the emotionally aloof Violet. As Susan Sarandon said of Shields, recounted in The Films of Louise Malle, "Brooke lived a life that was very similar [to that of her character]...you know...the closest thing to a child prostitute, would be a child actor-model, in this day and age. [Brooke] was already an incredibly mature kid and I don't think it's any secret that she was...asked to grow up very quickly."
Some saw Pretty Baby as a more disturbing than revealing tract on prostitution: the film was banned in England and Ontario, Canada. Though critics like Roger Ebert applauded the artfulness of Malle's film, others, like Cult Movies writer Danny Peary disdained Malle's moral passivity and his failure to imbue his atmospheric world with human flavor in this, his first American film. "It's infuriating that he attempts to pass off a story's premise for the story itself, as is the case with Pretty Baby, which is a series of vignettes rather than a straight narrative," writes Peary. Peary called Pretty Baby a film that "cries out for a director with a point of view." He also noted the poor taste of releasing a film without any negative appraisal of child prostitution during a concurrent public discourse on the horrors of child pornography and prostitution in America.
Ingmar Bergman's renowned cinematographer Sven Nykvist was Malle's first choice to shoot Pretty Baby and he showed him the paintings of Edouard Vuillard for visual inspiration. But Malle confessed there was trouble with both the cameramen's union and the film's crew in choosing Nykvist and in bringing a distinctively art house European sensibility to the directorial process. Malle complained about "a fairly mediocre crew; they didn't quite understand what I was doing. Sven and I both felt isolated." Star Keith Carradine also observed the tensions on set. As recounted in The Films of Louis Malle Carradine noted "He was trying to do something that was obviously from a very continental, cosmopolitan viewpoint. And he was surrounded by this sort of thuggish group of teamsters, and your typical New Orleans crew who were sort of bored by the whole process."
Malle felt Pretty Baby was well-received in America, though critics like Kenneth Turan and Molly Haskell took issue with his problematic approach to prostitution and a flat directorial style. Malle saw the film as less critically accepted in his native France. "Either I didn't quite make my point or people didn't get it," he said in Malle on Malle. "This is a film I cared a lot about, and looking back it had the potential to be one of my best achievements. It may have been a mistake to make it as my first film in America."
Director: Louise Malle
Producer: Louise Malle
Screenplay: Polly Platt, based on a story by Polly Platt and Louise Malle and material from Al Rose's Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic Account of the Notorious Redlight District.
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
Production Design: Trevor Williams
Music: Gerald Wexler
Cast: Brooke Shields (Violet), Keith Carradine (Bellocq), Susan Sarandon (Hattie), Frances Faye (Nell), Antonio Fargas (Professor), Matthew Anton (Red Top), Diana Scarwid (Frieda), Barbara Steele (Josephine).
by Felicia Feaster