Using the genre trappings of the superhero origin story, Amazon’s new drama The power explores society’s preoccupation with and fear of pubescent girls. The series, which I’m not actually reviewing here, explores how vast corners of the law and organized religion have been unconsciously or very consciously brought to the fore to deny those girls freedom of choice. In case of The power, that agency does not come in the form of legislation or a Supreme Court ruling, but as an evolutionary ability to generate and use electricity. The patriarchy is in for a shock!
If you want this topic to be covered with more text and less subtext, Lana Wilson‘s Handsome baby: Brooke Shields moves to Hulu after premiering in January at the Sundance Film Festival. The two-part documentary — 136 minutes in all, but certainly better suited to being edited into a 120-minute feature film — uses Shields’ alternately disturbing and inspiring journey as a vehicle to critique one of Hollywood’s worse undercurrents and ask questions about whether or not nothing has changed in the past 40 years.
Beautiful baby: Brooke Shields
It comes down to
Fascinating and relevant, albeit rarely revealing.
broadcast date: Monday, April 3 (Hulu)
Director: Lana Wilson
Handsome baby has problems with structure and focus, as well as a featured subject that isn’t always angry about the same things the narrator is fussing about. But there’s enough candor and introspection here to make the documentary worth watching, both for its signature sense of soured ’80s nostalgia and some of the powerful steps in Shields’ journey of personal growth.
From a distance, the Brooke Shields phenomenon is difficult to fully understand. The entertainment industry hasn’t magically stopped sexualizing teen and preteen girls, but it’s a process that may have become more diffused with social media and cable and streaming targeting different niches. However, Shields was monocultured as The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, an Ivory Soap Baby who became a commercial sensation; then, in a way that is unlikely to be accurately reproduced today, she became a movie star in a series of vehicles devoted, with vastly different levels of artistry and voluptuousness, to showcasing her sexuality, even as Handsome baby, The Blue Lagoon And Endless Love were all made before she turned 18.
As Wilson, Shields and the Doctor’s talking heads are quick to acknowledge, it’s not as if sections of society weren’t disturbed and perhaps even grossed out by the idea of Shields as a preteen prostitute or the centerpiece of a series of sexually suggestive Calvin Klein ads . . But there was a more pervasive fascination. The young model/actress and her mother/manager Teri hit the talk show circuit scoffing at the idea that Shields’ career was exploitative or worse, and magazine covers and hyperventilating tabloids fanned it. After that, of course, Shields grew up and became a high-profile celebrity virgin, a sitcom star, went on public war with Tom Cruise, and much more.
Shields presents herself here as a woman who made it across, which will no doubt be comforting to some viewers. Especially in the 69 minute first segment of Handsome babybut it lets the talking heads do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to breaking down ideas like entertainment that sexualizes girls as a direct response to feminism – I’d say this is partially true, but limitedly ahistorical – and why those Shields movies could exist at the time.
It’s not just that Shields is protective of her image and her mother’s image (she is less so later, when she talks about her mother’s alcoholism); she’s just not interested in being destructive or mischievous or playing the role of advocate. Footage from Handsome baby And Blue Lagoon and especially talk show interviews – so many creepy talk show interviews – from that era are the best for underscoring how unique Shields’ version of stardom was and how badly some parts of the entertainment industry handled it, while the different talking heads were just doing their best to add value.
The personal side of Shields’ life has been well documented by a host of friends and contemporaries, including Laura Linney, Ali Wentworth and Drew Barrymore. The entertainment/cultural side of things is well covered by people like BuzzFeed writer Scaachi Koul and podcaster/film historian Karina Longworth. But then you have a bunch of vaguely qualified sociological experts who almost never add anything of value, including at least one gentleman whose every appearance made me reach for my fast-forward button (even when I wasn’t using it, because I’m a pro). Anyway, with Shields hesitant to judge anyone – her anecdote about Franco Zeffirelli pulling her toe to get a desired Endless Love sex scene response loses momentum when told twice (Wilson adds a talk show clip where Shields tells the same story) — it’s hard not to feel like Longworth You must remember this podcast covered the same material in a smarter form.
The second hour, which uses Shields’ time at Princeton as a hub for her emerging voice and agency, is more candid but more checklist-y as the documentary weaves its way through interesting but unrevealing chapters in her life. Losing her virginity to Dean Cain? Account. Whether she dated Michael Jackson or not? Account. The whole Tom Cruise/Paxil controversy? Semi-control. Shields has discussed some of these things so much in the past that it feels rote, if not robotic, here. When she gets things lesser known – her sexual assault by an unnamed industry bigwig, the role Friends played in her divorce from Andre Agassi – she’s loosening up, but I wish Wilson could have taken a formal approach to putting Shields at ease more often.
There are elements here that point to a better template. When Shields has a casual conversation with Wentworth, rather than sitting too styled and composed in front of a generic backdrop, she’s a different person; the documentary could have used more of that.
It could also have used more of the Shields family. By far, the best scene in the documentary is a dinner where Shields and her daughters try to understand what was progressive and what was regressive about her early career; it’s funny, relaxed and still welcome analytic. That scene is a blueprint for the type of unstaged or otherwise staged approach that could have elevated the documentary from solid and interesting to truly revealing.
The topic is still so important – too important to give Amazon’s electric superheroes the more provocative angle.