Brooke Shields: America’s Princess
By Michael Goth
If one young person could be picked who most personified the 1980’s, Brooke Shields is one such person who would come to mind. In fact, in a 1981 cover story Time magazine named Brooke, “The Face of the Eighties”.
Brooke’s career as an actress and model has been filled with contradictions. At a young age, Brooke appeared in several films that caused controversy over the sexual matter in which she was portrayed. As did the series of famous Calvin Klein print and television ads where 14- year old Brooke, often presented in a provocative manner, uttered the tagline “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvin’s? Nothing!”
Off screen Brooke was insecure, suffered from bouts of depression and didn’t lose her virginity until her early 20’s. She also headed a campaign in the early 1980’s to keep cigarettes out of the hands of children. Brooke spoke about these very contradictions in her recently published book There Was A Little Girl: The Real Story of My Mother and Me.
As an actress, Brooke has continued to act into her late 40’s, most notably in the sitcom Suddenly Susan, which ran from 1996 to 2000. However, as an actress Brooke will probably be best remembered for three coming of age dramas, Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (1978), The Blue Lagoon (1980) and Franco Zeffirelli’s Endless Love (1981).
The only child of Frank and Teri Shields, Brooke Christa Shields was born on May 31, 1965 in New York City. Her parents were divorced before their daughter was even born and though Brooke would remain close to her father and step family, she was raised primarily by her alcoholic mother who could often be both physically and emotionally abusive. Despite this, Terri was very protective of her daughter and kept her safe from the darker sides of fame that have so often consumed many a young celebrity. Also, a real bond of love and affection existed between mother and daughter.
Brooke was the first member of Generation X, those babies born between 1965 and 1978, to achieve superstardom. And her road to the top began when Teri got her daughter cast in an Ivory soap ad when Brooke was 11-months old. A successful career in modeling soon followed.
Brooke’s first film role came at age 10 in the well-made but little known horror film Alice, Sweet Alice. Though like many low budget indie horror movies, Alice, Sweet Alice gained a cult following but quickly disappeared from theaters. Though Brooke’s role is small, she gives a solid performance that showcases her acting talent at such a young age.
Brooke’s break through film came in 1978 with Pretty Baby, a highly controversial film directed by Louis Malle, in which Brooke plays an 11- year old prostitute who lives with her mother in a brothel. Though Teri had it put into Brooke’s contract that her daughter would not perform any nude scenes and that a body double would be required, many questioned her wisdom in allowing her daughter to appear in such a film. Despite controversy over that some felt the film promoted child pornography, Pretty Baby and Brooke received positive reviews from critics. Pretty Baby was a hit overseas but didn’t perform well in America. The film moves at a snail’s pace and, frankly, who wants to see a film about an 11-year old prostitute?
Following Pretty Baby, Brooke appeared in several films that went unnoticed at the box office, though Wanda Nevada and Just You and Me, Kid are very enjoyable. Upon turning 14 in 1979, Brooke would be cast in the film that she would become most known for, The Blue Lagoon.
The Blue Lagoon was a pet project for Randall Kleiser, the director of the 1978 blockbuster Grease. The Blue Lagoon was based upon a novel by Henry De Vere Stacpoole and tells the story of two cousins, Emmeline (Brooke) and Richard Lestrange (Christopher Atkins), who become marooned on a deserted island. Away from the norms of society a passionate love affair develops between the young couple as they enter puberty.
The Blue Lagoon caused controversy over its depictions of underage nudity, though like in Pretty Baby, all of the scenes where Brooke’s character appears unclothed were performed by a body double. Despite its controversy, The Blue Lagoon is a very sweet coming of age story which was beautifully shot in the South Pacific and features strong performances from both Brooke and Christopher Atkins. To this day, The Blue Lagoon remains Brooke’s second best film.
The last film that Brooke would act in as a child actress was the 1981 adaptation of Scott Spencer’s 1978 bestseller Endless Love, the story of a doomed love affair between two Midwestern teens, 17- year old David Axelrod and 15-year old Jade Butterfield. Both Brooke and her mother felt that Endless Love was a good project as the great Italian director Franco Zeffirelli was attached to the film and the actress wanted to work with an artistic filmmaker, which she felt she hadn’t done since Pretty Baby. Also, Brooke loved Zeffirelli’s 1968 version of Romeo & Juliet.
Endless Love’s cast included unknown Martin Hewitt as David, Jade Butterfield’s (Brooke) troubled love interest as well as a strong supporting cast including Don Murray (Who Brooke said she loved in 1957’s Bus Stop), Shirley Knight, Richard Kiley, Beatrice Straight, James Spader and Tom Cruise in his film debut.
Brooke sites Endless Love as featuring what she considers her best performance which she attributes to working with Franco Zeffirelli. Endless Love is an amazing piece of work that is both moving and disturbing as it tells a story of love young turned obsession. After 34 years, it remains Brooke Shields greatest film and performance.
Avoiding the pitfalls that overcome many young actors, Brooke Shields has continued to work in film and television. The 1993 film Running Wild and the 2005 television movie Gone but Not Forgotten were especially memorable. However, Brooke Shields will probably always be remembered for her early roles as a child actress. As it is my opinion that she was the best there ever was.