Seberg, Jean (1938–1979)

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Seberg, Jean (1938–1979)

American actress who was a star of the French New Wave. Born on November 13, 1938, in Marshalltown, Iowa; thought to have died on August 31, 1979, in Paris, France; attended public schools in Marshalltown; married François Moreuil (an attorney and filmmaker), in 1958 (divorced 1960); married Romain Gary (a novelist), in 1962 (divorced 1970); married Dennis Berry (a film director), in 1972 (separated 1978); married Ahmed Hasni, in May 1979; no children.

Selected filmography:

Saint Joan (US, 1957); Bonjour Tristesse (US, 1958); The Mouse That Roared (UK, 1959); A Bout de Soufflé (Breathless, Fr., 1960); Let No Man Write My Epitaph (US, 1960); L'Amant de Cinq Jours (The Five Day Lover, Fr.-It., 1961); Les Grandes Personnes (Time Out for Love, Fr.-It., 1961); La Récréation (Playtime, Fr., 1961); In the French Style (US-Fr., 1963); Echappement Libre (Backfire, Fr.-It.-Sp., 1964); Lilith (US, 1964); Moment to Moment (US, 1966); A Fine Madness (US, 1966); La Ligne de Démarcation (Fr., 1966); La Route de Corinthe (Who's Got the Black Box?, Fr.-It.-Gr., 1967); Les Oiseaux vont mourir au Pérou (Birds in Peru, Fr., 1968); Pendulum (US, 1969); Paint Your Wagon (US, 1969); Airport (US, 1970); Macho Callahan (US, 1970); Kill! (Kill Kill Kill, Fr.-It.-Ger.-Sp., 1971); L'Attentat (The French Conspiracy, Fr., 1972); La Corruption de Chris Miller (The Corruption of Chris Miller, Sp., 1972); Le Chat et la Souris (Cat and Mouse, Fr., 1974); Le Grand Délire (Fr., 1975); Die Wildente (The Wild Duck, Ger.-Aus., 1976).

Described by Gary Morris as "more icon than actress," Jean Seberg soared to fame at age 17, when director Otto Preminger selected her from thousands of teenage hopefuls to play the

title role in the film Saint Joan (1957), which was shot in France. Seberg was lambasted by the critics for her portrayal of Joan of Arc . They were equally as critical of her second effort in Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse (1958). Dumped by the director, she fled back to France, reemerging in a series of French New Wave films. Seberg portrayed the quintessential young American abroad, "at once naive and rock hard, teetering between respectable ambition and wild adventure." Her personal life was scarred by four unhappy marriages and harassment from the American government over her support of the Black Panthers. Her death in 1979, age 40, was ruled a suicide.

Born in 1938 and raised in the small town of Marshalltown, Iowa, where her father owned a local pharmacy, Jean Seberg was a senior in high school when her speech teacher arranged for her to audition for the title role in Preminger's film version of Shaw's Saint Joan. At the time, the director's much-publicized quest to find an unknown for the role attracted 18,000 young girls from across the nation. "I think that I got the part largely because I was the only girl who didn't audition wearing a crucifix," Seberg said later, also recalling Preminger's "special gift for inspiring terror in people." (Apparently, Preminger grew more frustrated with the inexperienced Seberg as filming went on. When the actress suffered severe leg burns during the burning-at-the-stake scene, it was jokingly rumored that the director had engineered the accident in order to be rid of her.) Upon the picture's release, Seberg's performance was declared a disaster by the critics, who called her "callow and unconvincing," an "Iowa amateur." "Shaw's Joan, against which many an actress has shattered a lance, seems to have left limpid-eyed Jean Seberg with a handful of splinters," wrote Paul V. Beckley in the New York Herald Tribune (June 27, 1957). Seberg was so devastated by her poor showing that she spent a month in Nice, France, wandering the beach, weeping.

Meanwhile, Preminger refused to believe that he had been wrong about his young protégé and proceeded with his plans to star her in a second film, Bonjour Tristesse (1958), based on the novel by Françoise Sagan . The director, however, continued to bully the young star, threatening this time to replace her with Audrey Hepburn . As it turned out, the critics did not find Seberg any more convincing as a sophisticated father-obsessed teenager. The reviewer for The New York Times suggested "sending her back to that Iowa high school from whence she came," while William K. Zinsser of the New York Herald Tribune (June 16, 1958) found her "about as far from a French nymph as milk is from pernod."

In the summer of 1958, Preminger turned over the remainder of Seberg's contract, which ran until 1963, to Columbia. Under the new arrangement, she was given inconsequential roles in several films, including The Mouse That Roared (1959) and Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960). She used her downtime to improve her acting, studying with Etienne Decroux, France's master of mime, Peyton Price, a Hollywood acting coach, and Alice Hermes , a New York speech coach.

Meanwhile, in September 1958, Seberg was married to François Moreuil, a Paris lawyer with connections to the French film industry whom she had met on the French Riviera. It was through Moreuil that Seberg met Jean-Luc Godard, who enlisted her to star opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless (1960). The film, Godard's first, was largely improvised and concerned a French criminal and his American mistress. According to Donald La Badie, a critic for Show, the movie was the perfect showcase for Seberg's limited talents. "The masklike face, the self-consciousness, the flat hesitant voice, which had theretofore hindered her, were transformed to create a remarkable portrait," he wrote. Released in the United States in 1963, the film did well on the art-house circuit, although Roger Angell, writing in The New Yorker, remained cautious about Seberg's talent, writing that he was "unable to decide whether she acts beautifully or not at all."

After her successful French debut, Seberg starred in a series of films in which she often recreated the same corruptible innocent that had won over audiences in Breathless. "Apparently, for the French, at least, I seem to express a basic melancholy, a sense of loss that says something about all young women today," she said. In 1962, Seberg made the American-language film In the French Style (1963), playing a Yankee variation of her New Wave persona. Judith Crist , in the New York Herald Tribune (August 19, 1963), labeled it the fifth installment of the "never-ending serial" entitled "Jean Seberg, All-American Adolescent, Learns About Love in the Hotbeds of Paris."

Seberg turned in her most solid performance to date in Lilith (1964), portraying a schizophrenic patient who seduces her inexperienced therapist. William Peper of the New York World-Telegram and Sun called the performance "skillful and eerily captivating," while Variety found the actress "properly vague but … lovely." Seberg went on to appear in international films throughout the '60s and early '70s, although her career, rather than soaring, seemed to settle onto a middle ground.

Seberg's personal life was always shaky. Divorced from Moreuil in 1960, she was married to French diplomat and writer Romain Gary from October 1963 to 1970. Her next marriage was to director Dennis Barry. Separated but not divorced from Barry, Seberg then wed Algerian-born Ahmed Hasni in 1979. Three of Seberg's husbands directed her in films: Moreuil's La Récréation (Playtime); Gary's Kill, and Berry's Le Grand Délire. Seberg was also harassed by the FBI and other governmental agencies during the 1960s for her support of the Black Panthers. As well, after becoming pregnant (by Romain Gary), she suffered a miscarriage that led to a nervous breakdown. In September 1979, just months after her marriage to Hasni, the actress was found dead in her car, nine days after she had disappeared from her Paris apartment carrying a supply of barbiturates prescribed by her physician.


Carr, Jay. "'Journals' too sketchy on Seberg," in The Boston Globe. June 6, 1996.

Ginna, Robert Emmett. "On Screen: Jean Seberg," in Horizon. Vol. IV, no. 5. May 1962, p. 80.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1966. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1966.

——. Current Biography 1979. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1979.

Sklar, Robert. Film: An International History of the Medium. NY: Harry N. Abrams, n.d.

suggested reading:

Brodeur, Paul. "How the F.B.I. Left Jean Seberg Breathless," in The Nation. Vol. 262, no. 12. March 25, 1996, pp. 15–16, 18.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts