Seberg, Jean

views updated


Nationality: American. Born: Jean Dorothy Seberg in Marshalltown, Iowa, 13 November 1938. Education: Attended schools in Marshalltown; University of Iowa, Iowa City. Family: Married 1) Francois Moreuil, 1958 (divorced 1960); 2) the writer Romain Gary, 1963 (divorced); 3) Dennis Berry. Career: 1956—chosen amid great publicity as unknown to play the lead in Preminger's film Saint Joan; 1958—Preminger turned over her contract to Columbia after the failure of both Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse; 1959—role in Godard's A bout de souffle gave her international critical recognition; later French and international films; 1970s—career embittered by political harassment of her by the media; breakdown after the miscarriage of her child, and lawsuit concerning its paternity. Died: In Paris, 31 August 1979.

Films as Actress:


Saint Joan (Preminger) (title role)


Bonjour Tristesse (Preminger) (as Cecile)


The Mouse That Roared (Arnold) (as Helen)


A bout de souffle (Breathless) (Godard) (as Patricia Franchini); Let No Man Write My Epitaph (Leacock) (as Barbara Holloway); La Recreation (Playtime; Love Play) (Moreuil) (as Kate Hoover)


Les Grandes Personnes (Time Out for Love) (Valere) (as Ann); L'Amant de cinq jours (The Five-Day Lover) (de Broca)


Congo Vivo (Bennati)


In the French Style (Parrish) (as Christina James); Le Grand Escroc (Godard—short)


Echappement libre (Backfire) (Becker) (as Olga Celan); Lilith (Rossen) (title role)


Moment to Moment (LeRoy) (as Kay Stanton); Un Millard un billard (Diamonds Are Brittle) (Gessner)


La Ligne de demarcation (Line of Demarcation) (Chabrol); A Fine Madness (Kershner) (as Lydia West)


Estouffade à la Carabei (The Looters; Stew in the Caribbean) (Besnard); La Route de Corinthe (The Road to Corinth; Who's Got the Black Box?) (Chabrol) (as Shanny)


Les Oiseaux vont mourir au Perou (Birds Come to Die in Peru) (Gary) (as Adriana)


Pendulum (Schaefer) (as Adele Matthews); Paint Your Wagon (Logan) (as Elizabeth)


Airport (Seaton) (as Tanya Livingston); Ondata di calore (Dead of Summer) (Risi) (as Joyce Grasse); Macho Callahan (Kowalski) (as Alexandra Mountford)


Kill! (Kill! Kill! Kill!) (Gary) (as Emily)


Quaeta specie d'amore (This Kind of Love) (Bevilacqua); L'Attentat (The French Conspiracy) (Boisset) (as Edith Lemoine); Camorra! (Squitieri)


La corrupción de Chris Miller (The Corruption of Chris Miller; Behind the Shutters) (Bardem) (as Ruth)


Mousey (Cat and Mouse) (Petrie—for TV) (as Laura Anderson/Richardson); Les hautes solitudes (The Outer Limit of Solitude) (Garrel)


Bianchi cavalli d'Agosto (The White Horses of Summer) (Del Balzo); Le Grande Délire (The Great Frenzy) (Berry)


Die Wildente (The Wild Duck) (Geissendoerfer) (as Gina)

Film as Director:


Ballad for the Kid (+ ro)


By SEBERG: articles—

"Lilith et moi," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), April 1966, reprinted in English as "Lilith and I," in January 1967 issue.

"Re-birth," interview with G. Gow, in Films and Filming (London), June 1974.

Interview with Susan d'Arcy, in Films Illustrated (London), August 1974.

On SEBERG: books—

Frischauer, Willi, Behind the Scenes of Otto Preminger, New York, 1974.

Richards, David, Played Out: The Jean Seberg Story, New York, 1981, 1984.

Athill, Diana, Make Believe: A True Story, South Royalton, Vermont, 1993.

On SEBERG: articles—

LaBadie, D. W., "Everybody's Galatea," in Show (Hollywood), August 1963.

Current Biography 1966, New York, 1966.

Obituary in New York Times, 9 September 1979.

Lewis, Kevin, "Jean Seberg of Iowa and Paris," in Films in Review (New York), April 1980, corrections in February 1981 issue.

Alpert, Hollis, "Jean Seberg: Falling Star," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), September 1981.

Kramer, M., and R. Shafrensky, in Jump Cut (Berkeley, California), April 1983.

Stars (Mariembourg), Summer 1995; Autumn 1995.

Lippe, Richard, "In Defense of Jean Seberg," in CineAction (Toronto), December 1995.

Fuller, G., "Shots in the Dark," in Interview, March 1996.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan, "The Seberg We Missed," in Cineaste (New York), April 1996.

Waarala, Hannu, in Filmihullu (Helsinki), no. 4–5, 1997.

* * *

In the 34 features and 2 shorts that Iowa-born Jean Seberg made, she frequently played the all-American woman abroad. Her first two films, Saint Joan (in which the 17-year-old Seberg won the title role in a highly publicized open casting call) and Bonjour Tristesse, failed to gain her a critical or popular audience in the United States. Saint Joan in particular was a notorious failure, and easily might have plunged her back into obscurity. In France, however, she became a star overnight after her performance in the film that launched the French New Wave, A bout de souffle. Here, Jean-Luc Godard developed what he saw as her essential image, a fetching ambiguity of incorruptible wholesomeness that cloaked a casual amorality. The French were immediately charmed by her short-cropped blond hair, midwestern-accented French, and relaxed naturalistic acting.

A bout de souffle also established Seberg as the archetypal American girl abroad, and prompted Robert Rossen to cast her in her finest American film, Lilith. She plays a beautiful young schizophrenic in a luxurious mental asylum who seduces an occupational therapist. A genuine departure for her, the role allowed Seberg to use her wholesomeness as a cover for Lilith's malevolence. In one hauntingly lovely scene, Seberg draws her skirt to her knees, wades into a misty lake, and bends over to kiss her own image, an act that illuminates not only Lilith's destructive narcissism but also Seberg's delicate grace. Following Lilith, she became quickly stereotyped as a sophisticated, occasionally disturbed, cheating wife through such films as Moment to Moment, A Fine Madness, and Pendulum. Yet she also developed into an actress capable of playing roles of determination and quiet strength in such films as Line of Demarcation and Paint Your Wagon.

During the last decade of her life, Seberg's mental health deteriorated, due in part to a miscarriage and harassment by the FBI for supporting the Black Panthers. Hoping to revitalize a faltering career, she worked with many promising directors in Europe. Her only demanding role was in the prize-winning Ondata di calore, in which she gave a tour-de-force performance in a familiar role as a schizophrenic American woman stranded in Morocco. Two of her films drew their material directly from her life: Ballad for the Kid and Les hautes solitudes. In the latter she portrays herself—an American actress and left-wing activist living in exile. Neither film was successful.

At her best an actress of uncommon intelligence and feeling, Seberg never completely lost her all-American wholesomeness on the screen, even in films that explicitly tried to undermine it: La corrupción de Chris Miller and Les Oiseaux vont mourir au Perou. As the critic Vincent Canby said, she was "one of the most appealing and enigmatic movie stars of the 1960s." But she also was one of the more notorious casualties of the times, on levels personal, professional, and political. In 1995, 16 years after her tragic and much-too-early death, independent filmmaker Mark Rappaport reconstructed her life in the celluloid essay From the Journals of Jean Seberg, in which he examined her on- and off-screen persona from a social and cultural perspective.

—Arthur Nolletti Jr., updated by Rob Edelman