Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Pretty Baby (1978): Are you gonna be my girl?


It’s hard not to watch Pretty Baby and not become kind of obsessed with Brooke Shields. Her striking beauty at only twelve years old is the stuff of legends, and somehow doesn’t seem exploited in this film about prostitution in the early 1900s. Shields is Violet, a precocious girl born and raised in a high class brothel in the Storyville section of New Orleans. Her mother Hattie, played by Susan Sarandon, is not very maternal and does little to protect Violet from this lifestyle. She almost becomes the brothel’s mascot: preparing the madams pipe, joking around with the bar piano player, and exchanging small talk with the Johns.

Violet’s life is changed one morning with the arrival of a strange visitor: a character based on photographer E.J. Bellocq. She’s smart enough to know why men come to the brothel and finds it peculiar that he only wants to take photographs of the women. The two develop an unlikely friendship that leads to an even more bizarre (and somewhat disturbing) courtship. They happily marry but their age difference becomes more apparent over time and eventually Bellocq realizes that no amount of makeup or life experience will make her a woman.