Jean Seberg is one of those fascinating Hollywood stories that reads like the plot of a dark Hollywood movie. Her tragic story is lesser known than say, Marilyn Monroe’s – though she was just as great a beauty. And her politics caused more damage to her life than that of her acting contemporaries – ultimately leading to her death at the all too young age of 40.
Perhaps she looks familiar – though you might not have known or remembered her name. Yet Seberg (1938-1979) had starred with the likes of David Niven, Deborah Kerr, Peter Fonda, Warren Beatty, Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood, and is the face of the landmark French New Wave classic, Breathless.
She was hand-picked at age 17 by Otto Preminger in his nationwide search to find an actress to play Joan of Arc in his film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Over 18,000 young actresses had sent in their photos and of those 3000 were auditioned. Unfortunately, Seberg was miscast and both her acting and the 1957 film were panned. But since she was under contract to Preminger, he cast her to star opposite David Niven and Deborah Kerr in the following year’s Bonjour Tristesse .
In 1958 she was interviewed by Mike Wallace in between the releases of Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse. Wallace’s interrogation of the nineteen-year-old was aggressive and cruel, but throughout Seberg remains, for the most part, articulate and self-reflective. She represents modernity and social change, and Wallace appears either resentful or mistrustful of this. He attacks her personally in his line of questioning. He tells her that she’s a made star, a “synthetic star,” with no professional background. He says that she is a “pretty girl” (but not the prettiest girl in the world) and asks what will happen to her career when she has to choose between marriage and a career.
Seberg’s most famous role came in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (À Bout de Soufflé, 1960) in which she co-starred with Jean-Paul Belmondo. She plays Patricia, an independent young journalist living in Paris who falls in love with a wannabe hood. (Though if you’ve seen Breathless you know it’s much more than that.)
I had of course seen Seberg in Breathless, but I discovered much more about her through the brilliantly crafted and informative 1995 documentary From the Journals of Jean Seberg starring Mary Beth Hurt as Jean Seberg – an actress who coincidentally had been born in the same town as the woman she was channeling (Marshalltown, Iowa). Hurt’s Seberg narrates the story of her life from beyond the grave. The film has a feminist sensibility and looks at the role of women in Hollywood as director, Mark Rappaport, also explores Seberg’s career and activism in relation to better known actresses (and activists) Jane Fonda (Vietnam war) and Vanessa Redgrave (the Palestinian Liberation Organization).
Seberg had worked with the NAACP and later, with the Black Panthers – first with their Free Breakfast Program and later other grassroots programs within the movement. While Fonda and Redgrave were arguably somewhat protected by their family and stature, Seberg’s fundraising for the Panthers put her on J. Edgar Hoover’s radar and she was put under F.B.I. surveillance from 1969 through 1972.
In an attempt to discredit Seberg and quash any influence she may have had in the entertainment industry, the F.B.I.’s Counterintelligence program (aka COINTELPRO ) planted a rumor that was published in Joyce Haber’s syndicated gossip column in the May 19, 1970 edition of the Los Angeles Times saying that the father of Seberg’s unborn child was a prominent member of the Black Panther Party. And while the story did not call out Seberg by name, it was made clear it was her the tidbit was referring to. No one had vetted the piece, yet it was picked up by Newsweek magazine and reported – this time with Seberg’s name printed.
At this time, Seberg was separated from her second husband, Romain Gary, who insisted the child was his. Regardless, Seberg was so distraught that she gave birth prematurely. The baby girl, named Nina, lived for two days before dying. Reports vary – and the myth of Jean Seberg is great – but she either insisted on an open coffin or a glass coffin to prove that her infant was white and the press rumors were false.
Seberg then experienced a series of nervous breakdowns, some of which caused her to be hospitalized. On September 8, 1979 she was found wrapped in a blanket in the back seat of her car. She had been missing for 10 days after apparently leaving the house carrying prescription barbiturates and wrapped in only the blanket. She was 40 years old.
Jean Seberg was buried at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. After her death Gary held a press conference to take the F.B.I. to task for their role in her eventual death. He stated that every year on the anniversary of their daughter’s death she had attempted to commit suicide and that the F.B.I. had ruined her life. The bureau’s director came forward with an admission of planting the rumor and attempting to destroy Seberg’s reputation because she had been financially supporting a Black nationalist group. An F.B.I. memo later released read: “Jean Seberg has been a financial supporter of the B.P.P. [Black Panther Party] and should be neutralized.”
A new documentary on the life of Jean Seberg is being produced by Fourth Wall Films in collaboration with Seberg biographer, Garry McGee under the working title Movie Star: The Secret Lives of Jean Seberg. It is scheduled to be released late 2009. More info can be found at the production’s website and Facebook page.Additonally, Turner Classic Movies recently ran a marathon of Jean Seberg films and will be rescreening 1959’s The Mouse that Roared on August 29th.