Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Brooke Shields and her Mother: Losing it at the Movies

When the death of Teri Shields was announced late last month, the flurry of obituary tributes subsided quickly. After all, she had been out of the public eye for decades, ever since Brooke Shields stopped permitting her mother to guide her acting career. Since at least 2009, Teri Shields had been struggling with dementia, which contributed to her death at age 79.

It was a sad end for a woman who once seemed to have the world by the tail, thanks to her willingness to exploit her very young daughter’s beauty. Teri and her husband divorced a few months after Brooke was born in 1965. As a single parent, Teri was determined to make her own way in the world. She found a lucrative career through her baby daughter, whose first paying gig (at 11 months) was an ad for Dove soap.

Teri Shields was soon shrewdly aware of her daughter’s striking combination of innocence and sexual potential. Acting as Brooke’s manager, she arranged for her ten-year-old to be photographed in the nude for a Playboy Press publication. Two years later, Brooke was cast in Pretty Baby. This 1978 film, a serious look at the brothels of New Orleans in the early years of the 20th century, had an impressive pedigree. Director Louis Malle, a pillar of French cinema, was making his American film debut; story and screenplay were the work of the multi-talented Polly Platt, one of the many Roger Corman alumni who went on to earn impressive Hollywood credentials. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography was gorgeous. Performances by Keith Carradine (as a lovesick photographer) and newcomer Susan Sarandon were appealing. But what everyone remembers about Pretty Baby is twelve-year-old Brooke Shields, stark naked, in the central role of a child prostitute whose virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder.

As a mother myself, I wonder how a parent could push such a young child into such a sexualized environment. A few years after Pretty Baby’s release, Teri calmly told a TV interviewer, “Fortunately, Brooke was at an age where she couldn't talk back.” Brooke’s best-known films from her teen years also involved sexual discovery: The Blue Lagoon (1980) and Endless Love (1981). And of course there was the notorious TV ad for Calvin Klein jeans, shot when she was fifteen, in which Brooke looks straight into the camera and proclaims, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” (When she graduated from Princeton in 1987, her senior thesis was apparently titled, “The Initiation: From Innocence to Experience: The Pre-Adolescent/Adolescent Journey in the Films of Louis Malle, Pretty Baby and Lacombe Lucien.” It was certainly a subject she knew something about.)

Teri Shields, quintessential stage mother, was by no means unique. When I was writing for The Hollywood Reporter, I researched a piece on children who are cast in films that contain mature situations. Though the parents I spoke to worried about their youngsters growing up too fast, I have a hunch that many of them would jump if a juicy part came their child’s way.

The eeriest conversation I had for that article was with young Jena Malone, who’d starred as a victim of sexual abuse in a hard-hitting 1996 TV movie, Bastard Out of Carolina. When the role became available, Jena didn’t wait for her mother’s approval. By all accounts unusually bright and mature, she herself read and absorbed the tough-minded script. That an eleven-year-old could talk knowingly about sexual molestation, and would want to simulate it on camera, is something that the mom in me would rather not accept.


  1. Given your interest in stage moms and your fascination with bad reality TV, I think you would love/be horrified by Dance Moms, a docu-drama about Abby Lee, a sassy and bitchy dance teacher of young girls, her competitive dance protegees, and their mothers. It's on right after Project Runway and the previews and small clips I see before my recording ends just make me shudder. http://www.mylifetime.com/shows/dance-moms/about

  2. I've heard about that program, and really want to check it out! Someday I'll write about my dance class experiences with a Dance Mom type who always fought to make sure her daughter was placed in the first row.

  3. Wow - pretty amazing that so much happened with Brooke back in the day that would get people strung up today. I do remember seeing Teri and Brooke on talk shows - and I remember SCTV (Friday nights on NBC after Carson) doing a pretty savage spoof of them - with Catherine O'Hara as a bubbleheaded Brooke and Rick Moranis in frumpy drag as Teri. In addition to a couple of jeans commercial spoofs they did "The Brooke Shields Show" - a talk show where Teri watches over a supremely disinterested Brooke as she "interviews" then-Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill (John Candy) - Brooke only perks up long enough to ask if she can call him Tip Toenail.

    Bastard Out of Carolina was shot here in Wilmington - I was on a different show at the time and did not work on it - but I remember the controvery started while the movie was in production - and there was talk of the show shutting down before it wrapped - I was glad to be over on whatever TV movie I was on at the time - perhaps being lightly abused by Shannen Doherty or watching Kate Jackson be an ass to everyone around her.

    I've only seen Dance Moms clips on The Soup - which is a great way to get small doses of these terrible reality shows so you know what people are talking about - and that woman makes me angry. Listening to Joel McHale get snarky about her does make me laugh though.

  4. I'm sure Catherine O'Hara was really funny, but I wonder whether Brooke is truly a bubblehead. I've seen her on stage fairly recently, and she came across well. (She wasn't extraordinarily charismatic, but she was playing a down-to-earth sort of role and I found her convincing.) No question she's a survivor -- having lived through an extraordinarily peculiar upbringing (not to mention a public flogging by Tom Cruise when she discussed her bout with post-partum depression) she seems pretty remarkably stable. I get the impression that for the last decade or so she's had to "mother" her mother, an interesting turnabout.

  5. Brooke Shields was here in Wilmington in 1996 shooting a TV movie that ended up being called "An Almost Perfect Bank Robbery." I was wrapping up a season on a CBS series called American Gothic - and the TV movie was in our studio space (an old warehouse/factory) and using some of our sets. I met Ms. Shields briefly - and she seemed a very sweet woman - not bubbleheaded at all. She has been through some tough times - that Tom Cruise debacle was ridiculous - on his part - and while I'm sorry Teri Shields had to go through such a debilitating health downturn - I'm glad Brooke was able to take care of her.

  6. It has just occurred to me -- postpartum depression is hormonal, not psychological, and can strike absolutely any new mother. But how curious that it attacked Brooke Shields, who certainly knew something about the questionable side of mothering, and who might well have rattled by the thought of what lay ahead.