Sarah Macken examines the life of Jean Seberg, and sees in it echoes of how Hollywood still treats women
How do you tell the story of a fallen It Girl? If 2021 has taught us anything it’s to reframe the media spin, to separate the truth from the rhetoric of the day and to acknowledge how dangerous the commodification of women in Hollywood was — and continues to be.
To accept that what we knew then is not what we know now. And that, frankly, we need to do better.
Jean Seberg is best known for her role in the seminal Breathless by Jean-Luc Goddard; a film largely responsible for the global explosion of French New Wave. While the 1960 feature played with the conventions of traditional cinema it was the twenty-three-year-old Seberg playing the ingénue to Jean Paul Belmondo’s petty thief that still holds a distinct currency. If not for Seberg’s acting skills, then for her trademark pixie crop and Breton tees, all of which are immortalised on Pinterest boards to this day.
Nowadays, Jean’s following could be described as cult. Indeed, when Kristen Stewart played the actress to critical acclaim in the 2019 Seberg — a snapshot of Jean’s involvement with the Black Panther movement in the US — Jean found a new audience, and a saddening new relevance.
Image from @ariesstew on Instagram
Trigger alert: Seberg’s tale is tragic. It’s one of gaslighting. Media manipulation. Misogyny. Sanatoriums and mental health breaks. Miscarriage. It’s a first-hand account of how incendiary fame can be. And, perhaps, most familiarly, of how Hollywood’s co-opting of female sexuality is shrouded in hypocrisy. In a stranger-than-fiction twist, it runs the gamut from celebrity tell-all to full-blown conspiracy theory.
It ends with Jean’s body being found in the back of her white Renault, ten days after her disappearance, on a Parisian street. Wrapped in a blanket, next to some barbiturates.
Jean had become an unofficial poster girl for the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. However, she was dead by probable suicide, by 1979. She was just 40.
Her career is one of the most polarised in Hollywood history. Long before Paris, Kim or even, Alexa, Seberg was chewed up and spit out by the media.
Speaking of playing her in the political thriller Seberg, Kristen Stewart said: “Even though she went through circumstantially, really horrific, tragic things, there was something about [Seberg] that was energetically undeniable. She was so misunderstood. It’s not like you need to hero-worship a celebrity, they are just people you want to look at. The fact that people stared at her and fixated on things that were not real, projections: that really ultimately destroyed her.”
Jean’s rise to fame was, to begin with, by way of what we refer to nowadays as ‘manufactured’ celebrity. The Iowa-born aspiring actress won a talent search held by prestigious Austro-Hungarian director Otto Preminger, beating 80,000 hopefuls to star in his new project.
Plucked from a humble life as the daughter of a substitute teacher and a chemist, Jean found herself on a fast track to celebrity that pre-dated reality television. What Jean didn’t realise is that her ‘prize’, the lead role in Preminger’s historical drama Saint Joan would be a toxic initiation into the world of film. Preminger’s psychological torture of the fledgling actress holds a shocking similarity to what Alfred Hitchcock did to Tippi Hedren.
Image from @jeansebergofficial on Instagram
This came to a head when Jean was set on fire during the filming of the climax of Saint Joan. She did not escape unscathed, suffering burns which left her stomach permanently scarred. It’s said that the footage used in the final cut features authentic screams of panic, as the flames licking Jean’s body were, in fact, real.
In isolation, Jean’s experience was harrowing. Filtered through a modern lens it feels frighteningly familiar. Indeed, there’s shadows of Uma Thurman’s car accident on the set of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill.
Jean vowed not to let Preminger get the better of her; gritting her teeth in spite of the fact that, mentally, it was taking its toll. While Jean was in survival mode, she was also becoming a pawn for the media. Critics were quick to pan her performance in Saint Joan, labelling Jean’s nontraditional rise to fame as a “Pygmalion experiment”. Jean internalised the film’s flop as a personal failure, telling The Blade, a daily newspaper in Toledo, Ohio:
“I have two memories of Saint Joan. The first was being burned at the stake in the picture. The second was being burned at the stake by the critics. The latter hurt more.”
Thankfully, in 2021 we are slowly acknowledging that quitting can in fact be a positive, especially when your mental health is on the line. (See Simone Biles’ brave decision to quit the Tokyo Olympic Games in order to “protect her mind and body”.) This rethink of resilience is something that certainly would have aided Jean. Indeed, one can’t help but feel saddened by how trapped Seberg was by conventions of the time. Not least, the ignorance regarding mental health.
On the French TV show Cinépanorama in 1960, a composed Jean graciously endured questions about her “washed up” reputation, her “flopped” film career, and her check in to a private clinic, which she downplayed as a “week of rest”. When the interviewer asked her if she had received psychoanalysis, Jean laughed it off, saying she was “more Parisian than a psychoanalysed Hollywood girl”.
This was a tragic foreshadowing: Jean would spend much of the seventies in and out of mental health facilities. In this moment, at just twenty three, it’s clear Jean was not permitted any humanity— failure, doubt or learnings — nor was she allowed to be authentic about her mental health. Before wrapping up, the interviewer posed the question, “Were you going to throw yourself into the Mediterranean?”
Jean’s strife would not end there. By 1968, she was becoming an enemy of the state — targeted and harassed by the FBI for her support of the Black Panther movement. How did a blonde, seemingly innocuous film actress from Iowa rack up such animus from the federal government? Easy. By being politicised.
Jean gave her money and her time to support Black activism and was rumoured to have had relationships with two members of the Panthers. One of whom was Hakim Jamal, who was married to the cousin of Malcom X. Jean wasn’t alone in lending her celebrity to support the cause; Jane Fonda (who was also subject to FBI scrutiny), Vanessa Redgrave and Paul Newman were also politically engaged. But it was Jean’s entanglement with the Panthers that perhaps proved the most deadly.
In 1970, the FBI launched a campaign to “discredit the actress and cheapen her image in the public eye” by planting a rumour that the child Jean was carrying was not fathered by her then second husband French novelist and diplomat Romain Gary, but by a member of the Panthers. It was referenced in the Los Angeles Times. Newsweek name-checked Jean in the story. News spread as far as Switzerland, where a seven-months-pregnant Jean was canvassing on behalf of the Panthers. When Jean read the story, she said the stress spurred her into premature labour. She was helicoptered to Geneva for an emergency cesarean. Her daughter survived three days.
The premature death of her daughter was the zenith of Jean’s torture during that period of her life. Seberg depicts Jean’s distress leading up to this time. She was being watched; her phone had been tapped by the FBI. She knew she was a target, but was dismissed by those around her as paranoid.
Image via @jeansebergofficial on Instagram
Jean later credited this with the annihilation of her well-being, resulting in a mental breakdown. She told the New York Times:
“I began cracking up then, without knowing it. I decided to bury my baby in my home town. I did the whole deal. We opened the coffin and took 180 photographs, and everybody in Marshalltown who was curious what color the baby was got a chance to check it out. A lot of them came to look.”
When the couple eventually took legal action against Newsweek in French courts they won, apparently rewarded just $11,000 in damages.
The treatment of Jean’s sexuality by the media is equally fascinating. Unlike other contemporaries of the time, she wasn’t marketed as sex symbol; she was no Bardot or Loren. But perhaps it was her direct attitude to sex, rather than an overtly sexual image, that threatened the conventions of the time.
She had affairs. It’s rumoured she had relationships with co-stars Warren Beatty and Clint Eastwood. She was branded a home wrecker for dating Gary, who was married to British author Lesley Blanch when they met. She questioned the didactic nature of relationships as set out by the establishment. By 1971, she was sharing a Paris apartment with Gary and her new husband Dennis Berry (Gary plastered up a door to give the newlyweds privacy). While their son, Diego, lived down the hall with a nanny. It was all very louche.
However, it’s not clear whether she had a hand in driving the narratives that shaped her. Jean was portrayed as a nymphomaniac not once, but twice in her roles. In Lilith (1964), Jean plays a woman whose rampant sexual desire essentially drives a man crazy. Set in a sanatorium, the pinnacle scene of the film sees Jean, a patient, masturbating after confessing that the suicide of her brother, played by Henry Fonda, was caused by their incestuous relationship. That Jean relished the challenge of the role was clear, but looking back, the underlying theme of women’s sexuality being a shameful, even dangerous force, is jarring.
Not least, the role of a schizophrenic seductress in a sanatorium walks an uncomfortable line with Jean’s later life. By the mid-1970s, Jean’s mental health was in a spiral. Her ex-husband Gary directly links the tragedy of their daughter to Jean taking her own life, saying she attempted suicide each year thereafter on the anniversary of their daughter’s death. Days after Jean’s suicide, the FBI admitted to planting the rumour to discredit Jean Seberg’s reputation; citing counter-intelligence programme, Cointelpro, authorised by FBI founder, J Edgar Hoover.
The reality of Seberg’s life was far from picture-perfect. Both in her life, and its tragic ending, there are shades of Britney; a striking similarity to Princess Diana, even. It’s the disintegration of a young woman who seemed to ricochet from drama to drama under a relentless public focus, without ever really getting a sense of her own autonomy, or satisfaction. There’s something about the unfolding of Jean’s life that is at once terrifyingly familiar and a foreboding cautionary tale for stars of today.
In a way, it’s as if Jean knew the role of a woman in Hollywood was fleeting and unquantifiable. She summarised this for the New York Times in 1974. “I’m feeling around. If you want to know what I’ll be doing 10 years from now, I couldn’t say. It’s like asking a woman whether she will be graceful at 45, who knows what life will do to you?”