Pretty Baby is a 1978 American historical fiction and drama film directed by Louis Malle, and starring Brooke Shields, Keith Carradine, and Susan Sarandon. The screenplay for the film was written by Polly Platt. Its plot focuses on a 12-year-old prostitute in the red light district of New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century.
The title of the film is inspired by the Tony Jackson song, "Pretty Baby", which is also used in the soundtrack. Although the film was mostly praised by critics, it was wildly controversial at the time due to its depiction of child prostitution and the scenes of the nude Brooke Shields, who was 12 years old at the time of filming.
In 1917, during the last months of legal prostitution in Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans, Louisiana, Hattie is a prostitute working at an elegant brothel run by the elderly, cocaine-sniffing Madame Nell. Hattie has just given birth to a baby boy and has a 12-year-old daughter, Violet, who also lives at the house. When photographer Ernest J. Bellocq comes by with hiscamera, Hattie and Violet are the only ones awake. He asks to be allowed to take photographs of the women. Madame Nell only agrees after he offers to pay.
Bellocq becomes a fixture in the brothel, taking many photographs of the prostitutes, mostly of Hattie. His activities fascinate Violet, though she believes he is falling in love with her mother, which makes her jealous. Violet is also a restless child, and frustrated by the long, precise process Bellocq must go through to pose and take his pictures.
Nell decides that Violet is old enough for her virginity to be auctioned off. After a bidding war between regulars, Violet is bought by an apparently quiet customer, but this first sexual experience is unpleasant. Hattie, meanwhile, aspires to escape prostitution. She marries one of her customers and goes to St. Louis without her daughter, whom her husband believes to be her sister. Hattie promises to return for Violet once she’s settled and broken the news to her new spouse.
Violet runs away from the brothel in a fit of temper after being punished for some hijinks, showing up on Bellocq’s doorstep. The two become lovers, although Violet still needs a great deal of attention and is frustrated by Bellocq’s devotion to his work, as much as he is frustrated by her lack of "maturity" and constant tantrums; For his part, the older man is entranced by Violet’s beauty, youth, and photogenic face.
Violet eventually returns to Nell’s after quarreling with Bellocq, but social reform groups are forcing the brothels of Storyville to close. Bellocq arrives to wed Violet, ostensibly to protect her from the larger world.
Immediately following the wedding, Hattie and her husband arrive from St. Louis. They claim that Violet’s marriage is illegal without their consent and plan to take her back with them. Violet would like her husband to come with her, but he lets her go, realizing a more conventional life, and schooling, will benefit her more.
- Brooke Shields as Violet
- Keith Carradine as E.J. Bellocq
- Susan Sarandon as Hattie
- Frances Faye as Nell
- Antonio Fargas as Professor
- Matthew Anton as Red Top
- Diana Scarwid as Frieda
- Barbara Steele as Josephine
- Seret Scott as Flora
- Cheryl Markowitz as Gussie
- Susan Manskey as Fanny
- Laura Zimmerman as Agnes
- Miz Mary as Odette
- Gerrit Graham as Highpockets
- Mae Mercer as Mama Mosebery