[This essay on Jean Seberg originally appeared in the print edition of Stop Smiling Magazine. It’s not in their online archive, it’s one of my favorite pieces from back then, and since there’s now a movie about her life, I dug it up.]
At the end of Played Out, David Richards’s biography of doomed blonde starlet Jean Seberg, he offers an epilogue set at Marshalltown High School, Jean’s Iowa alma mater. Members of the Masque and Dagger drama club are preparing to crown that year’s winner of the Jean Seberg Award, named in honor of the small town’s most renowned citizen, who long since absconded from farm life for the life of a movie star in Paris. Both finalists, Patty Tiffany and Kris Hoelscher, are visibly nervous about the impending honor, yet neither –when prompted– can conjure the name of a Jean Seberg movie. It is September of 1980, but eight months on from when Seberg’s body was found in the back seat of a Renault on a Parisian side street, wrapped and bloated beside emptied bottles of barbiturates and mineral water, and yet she is already a distant memory in her home, all but forgotten in America.
And were it not for a sick day spent watching Turner Classic Movies, which paired up The Mouse That Roared and Paint Your Wagon! (perhaps the nadirs of sixties movie musicals), I myself would’ve been in Miss Tiffany and Miss Hoelscher’s position, hard-pressed to name a feature outside Jen Seberg’s defining role as the capricious American chick that smash-faced cop-killer Jean-Paul Belmondo beds in Jean-Luc Godard’s incipient shot of the French nouvelle vague, A Bout de Souffle, (Breathless).
Jean Seberg is the All-American story though. If by All-American you mean a small town nobody made into an idol overnight, via the sadistic dictums of a merciless control freak with a foreign accent. If by All-American you mean the story of a beautiful blonde whose every licentious encounter became fodder for the gossip pages. If by All-American you mean a public disgrace suffered at the hands of her government through the surreptitious seeding of the press, an mandate dictated from on high. And, if you mean by All-American, embodying a strain of beauty and fame that is both the very apex of sexual power as well as a vortex managed only by more illicit encounters, fuelled and dulled by alcohol and a profusion of pills, then Jean Seberg is indeed the All-American Girl, part of the myth factory that spawns not just Carrie Underwoods but Anna-Nicole Smiths, its Marilyn Monroes and Valerie Plames.
Seberg was seduced by Marlon Brando on the big screen at the Orpheum movie house in downtown Marshalltown, deciding she too would be an actress, though her attempts to make it through the tome An Actor Prepares failed; instead she thumbed the Hollywood glossies. A star in her drama club, her fate was cast by the town’s eccentric millionaire, J. William Fischer, who submitted her to famed Austrian director Otto Preminger’s open call, a worldwide search for his next star. “I have no specific image or character in mind,” Preminger proclaimed, settling himself in at Chicago’s Sherman Hotel so as to screen some three thousand of the eighteen thousand applicants. “I only know that there are certain qualities necessary to portray this part, which I hope to recognize when I meet the girl.”
When the 17-year-old sylph took to the stage, Preminger had found her: a wad of innocent, shapeless clay, a scrim on which to project his own desires. Such would be the case for everyone from Godard to Robert Rossen to Jean’s second husband and wannabe director, Romain Gary. Preminger introduced her to the world on the Ed Sullivan Show, then went about removing the moles off of her visage, shoring off her blonde locks, and locking her up in a hotel to prepare her for the role as Joan of Arc. Gossip rags murmured that the barely legal charge was involved with the brusque director, alluding to a paternal and sadomasochistic shade to the relationship.
Her first appearance on the silver screen in St. Joan is as a dream, draped in shadows, a wraith back from the dead. Seberg recites her lines, flat as an Iowan wheat field, her emotional capacity fluctuating between inopportune smirks and quavering histrionics. The film was both a critical and financial disaster, with the climactic scene of Joan being burned at the stake all too real when a leaky fuel tank ignited right in her face, yet the overnight success story was too good to pass up. As a Columbia publicist spun it: “Any girl can look at Jean and feel she might do it, too. She gives hope to American teen-agers that someone might discover them.” Preminger and Seberg remained linked for another film, another failure.
Still, she elicited keen admirers. Gracing the cover of Cahiers du Cinema, critic François Truffaut gushed with praise:
When Jean Seberg is on the screen…you can’t look at anything else. The shape of her head, her silhouette, her walk, everything is perfect: this kind of sex appeal hasn’t been seen on the screen…Jean Seberg, short blonde hair on a pharaoh’s skull, wide-open blue (sic) eyes with a glint of boyish malice, carries the entire weight of this film on her tiny shoulders.
Such phrenology caught the eye of another Parisian critic, Jean-Luc Godard, who decided to take matters into his own hands and –stuffing his cameraman Raoul Coutard in a lidded mail cart– filmed Seberg as she peddled the Herald-Tribune along the Champs-Elysées. Before Bardot, before Anna Karina, Seberg was Godard’s first obsession, focused on her profile, on the nape of her neck, intent on her unblemished brow and lowered lashes throughout Breathless. Sure, she was cold and capricious, handing her lover over to the police, but France swooned regardless. Seberg’s boyish hair was asked for in salons as “la coupe Seberg.” Actress Josie Yanne noted that “as much as Brigitte Bardot was the woman as object, Jean stood for the woman as free spirit.” While Pauline Kael deemed her character “the most terrifyingly simple muse-goddess-bitch of modern movies…like a new Daisy Miller… she is so free that she has no sense of responsibility or guilt.”
Seberg embodied the insouciance and informality of the New World, she was America, even while residing in Paris. But soon her roles began to follow that typecast: the innocent daughter, the Nebraskan abroad, the virginal American teenager sent to Paris for a summer. Other roles hinted at her future troubles, playing schizophrenics or women with paternal vagaries. When Robert Rossen cast her for 1964’s Lilith, he noted that Seberg has “got that flawed American girl quality – sort of like a cheerleader who’s cracked up.”
And crack-up she slowly did. When she wasn’t stealing husbands from wives (in the case of lovers like Romain Gary and Jamal X), she was involved in multiple trysts. When back in America to work on boilerplate like Paint Your Wagon! and Airport, she became involved with the Black Panther Party, going so far as to run guns for them out of her Coldwater Canyon home, when not bunking down with its ranks. In much the same way that a two-bit thief like Belmondo got in her panties and impregnated her in Breathless, Jean committed innumerable dalliances with other deviants and lowlifes. While filming in Mexico, a fling with a student led to her second pregnancy, but when news slipped out, the truth was twisted ever so slightly.
The FBI’s COINTELPRO had already targeted the Panthers, as well as any public figures that assisted them, including Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland’s wife. A 1969 internal memo pondered how best to neutralize and discredit Seberg. What better way than divulge that unspoken social/ sexual taboo of America, that a Black Panther was the father of her child? Deemed “a sex pervert” by J. Edgar Hoover and the bureau, that salacious scoop made its way to LA Times gossip columnist Joyce Huber, who ran with it. Tongue-clucking articles followed in the Hollywood Reporter and Newsweek, the fallout such that Seberg miscarried her fetus that same week. Paranoid, distraught, strung out on painkillers, Seberg sought to place the fetus in a glass coffin, so that the press could see the baby wasn’t a mulatto.
The effect of such slander was absolute. Overnight, her star turned suddenly abhorrent in Hollywood, work declined on the continent too, while her appetite for illicit sex, liquor, and pills escalated. With every anniversary of the dead child came another suicide attempt, until that final, tragic scene played out far from watchful eyes. And yet, the seeds of her demise are hinted at in that very first scene of St. Joan. When her accusers were revealed to be corrupt and wrong, she recites in her monotone: “I was burned all the same. Can they un-burn me?”