Jean Seberg, Hollywood Cinderella
Movie star Jean Seberg's life reads like a cinematic fairy tale, a Marshalltown, Iowa, teenager plucked from obscurity over 18,000 candidates to star in legendary director Otto Preminger's film St...
September 14, 2013 - by Mike McCrann
Movie star Jean Seberg’s life reads like a cinematic fairy tale, a Marshalltown, Iowa, teenager plucked from obscurity over 18,000 candidates to star in legendary director Otto Preminger’s film St. Joan and the lead in Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless, considered the first of the great French “New Wave” masterpieces. A marriage to the famous French author Romain Gary. Hollywood stardom in the mega-hit Airport and Paint Your Wagon. One of the great film performances of all time in Lilith. Unfortunately, this Hollywood Cinderella story was played out in reverse. Jean Seberg committed suicide at age 40. Her life was in ruins—three divorces, her career in limbo, a baby born dead, pursued by the FBI for supposed Black Panther support—Jean Seberg was found dead in a parked car in Paris, the city that once had promised her fame and happiness.
Jean Seberg was a pretty young Iowa teenager when she was selected by Otto Preminger to play Joan of Arc in the 1957 film St. Joan. Unfortunately the film and Seberg were trashed by the critics, and the film was a big time flop. (Looking back today, Jean Seberg is amazingly natural and un–actressy in the film.) Preminger was a tyrant on the set, but he did cast her again in Bonjour Tristesse, the gorgeous film based on Francoise Sagan’s scandalous novel. Playing the daughter of roue David Niven, Seberg is excellent in this tragic tale of love gone wrong on the Riviera. Today this film is regarded as one of the great ’50s films, but it too flopped on its initital release. At this point’ salvation came when French director Jean Luc Godard cast Seberg as the American girl who takes up with a cop killer (Jean Paul Belmondo) in Breathless. With her hair cut pixie-short, Seberg was not only a fashion sensation but her performance was widely praised.
Jean Seberg had married and divorced a Frenchman briefly before marrying the great love of her life, French novelist and diplomat Romain Gary, who was 24 years her senior. She had his son in 1962. Jean Seberg came back to commercial Hollywood filmmaking with a bang. In 1964 she starred in Lilith opposite Warren Beatty and gave the performance of her life. Director Robert Rossen’s film is the study of a mad woman (Seberg) who lives in a ritzy sanitarium and causes havoc by seducing most of the men around her. With her hair now long and glamorous, Jean Seberg was not only gorgeous but gave one of the great performances in American film history. She received raves. As DVD Savant reviewer Glen Erickson wrote in his 2004 DVD review, “Lilith’s strongest asset is the sight of magical Jean Seberg photographed by the legendary cameraman Eugen Schufftan. Some of her sequences reach heights of ethereal mystery rare in American film … a unique character brilliantly realized.” Unfortunately, 1964 audiences wanted musicals like Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady, and Lilith was not a commerical hit. But Seberg still was in high demand and later had prominent roles in the mega-hit Airport and the flop musical Paint Your Wagon.
Jean Seberg’s life was fast falling apart. Her marriage to Gary ended, and her affair with Paint Your Wagon co-star Clint Eastwood also ended when he dumped her and went back to his wife. She probably could have survived all this had not the FBI taken an interest in Seberg’s life. The actress had given financial support to various civil rights groups and to the Black Panther Party. The FBI set out to defame and discredit Jean Seberg. Later-released FBI files stated their goal was to “cause her embarrassment and cheapen her image with the public.” In 1970, this harassment reached its nadir when the FBI created the false story that the child Seberg was carrying was not fathered by Romain Gary but by a member of the Black Panther Party. The story was carried by Hollywood gossip witch Joyce Haber and even printed in Newsweek magazine. Seberg lost the baby girl and went home to Iowa for the open-casket funeral, allowing reporters to see the infant’s white skin. Jean Seberg’s persecution by J Edgar Hoover was in overdrive. She was blacklisted in Hollywood and put under constant surveillance. Unable to deal with a life spiralling out of control, Jean Seberg committed suicide by overdosing on barbiturates. She was found in her car near her Paris apartment. Her note to her son simply stated, “Forgive me. I can no longer live with my nerves.” The following year, Romain Gary—Jean Seberg’s former husband and father of her son—also committed suicide.
Jean Seberg seemed on the brink of a fabulous life and career. When she left sleepy Marshalltown, Iowa, Jean Seberg entered a world of fame and fortune. Her life was great for a while, but then the Hollywood Cinderella story began to unravel in the worst way. For all the trappings of movie stardom and international society, Jean Seberg really never changed much from the simple Iowa teenager. Would her life have been successful had she never left Iowa? Who knows? But Jean Seberg has left us an endearing cinematic legacy. She will always be the leggy Patricia hawking The New York Herald Tribune on the streets of Paris in Breathless. And her performance as the delusional Lilith Arthur in Lilith is a performance for the ages. There is a great book about Jean Seberg by David Richards called Played Out: The Jean Seberg Story. Jean Seberg is pretty much forgotten today. She should be remembered for not only what she gave the world of movies but what can happen when your own government decides you are a risk and worth destroying.