President Hoover saw her as a social nuisance. The FBI bugged her phones and opened her mail.
The government followed her every move, expecting to break her will. And, when they didn’t, they were the first to release the details surrounding Jean’s suspicious suicide in Paris, France on August 30th, 1979.
Today WomanScape honors Jean Seberg. She was a complex woman who endured years of government harassment and surveillance that drove her to the brink of madness. Her story is a gripping discussion about the dangers of daring to dream and a desire to change the world.
Jean was a trailblazing actress for her time and questioned the status quo. She hoped to leverage her Hollywood fame and finances to benefit those less fortunate. It’s a popular strategy today for stars who want to create a positive public persona, but Jean was an early adopter who had nothing to gain and everything to lose by taking a stand against racism and social injustices.
During the 1960s, actors like Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando attempted to help others with their fame but Jean was unique with her unabashed focus and willingness to support fringe groups blacklisted by the government. This was especially true in her support for breakfast programs run by the Black Panthers; they were a revolutionary African American party originally formed to protect people from police brutality.
So what is Jean’s story and why don’t know more about the way the American government tried to neutralize her?
Ironically, Jean’s story has bubbled up in recent years as people discover a common thread in today’s world. Jean was harassed by the American secret service, a group that has come under greater scrutiny since her legacy under Presidents Hoover and Nixon. Think Watergate, Whitewater and Edward Snowden’s protests under President Obama.
There is populus pressure in the world and in America to re-examine the role of government agencies. How transparent are they – are they secretly waterboarding detainees and manipulating the system of voting and the court systems? These are just some of the issues at the forefront, not to mention our questioning the integrity of news outlets in the wake of much talked-about “fake news” (President Trump).
No wonder a small group of filmmakers from Jean’s birthplace, Marshalltown, Iowa started collecting footage for a documentary about her life in 2013.
Garry McGee (McMarr Ltd.) and Kelly and Tammy Rundle’s (Fourth Wall Films) award winning documentary, Movie Star: The Secret Lives of Jean Seberg will be released in December of 2019. A second production about Jean’s life debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) several weeks ago and stars Kristen Stewart. Kristen and Jean are eerily similar-looking and one can’t help but cheer Jean’s strength under Benedict Andrew’s direction in Seberg. See WS ReelTalk Review and the timely questions behind the FBI’s operation COINTELPRO which targeted Jean and supporters of revolutionary movements.
When Jean landed her first acting role as the coveted Joan of Arc in director Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan, she seemed destined for stardom. She won the role in a world-wide talent search beating out 18,000 European and American actors who auditioned for the 1957 role of Joan. Sadly, the film tanked at the box office and critics gave Jean poor reviews, but the role kickstarted her successful career. To make things worse, the young seventeen-year-old Jean suffered burns while filming on set yet she rose above her injuries and horrible reviews.
About the experience, Jean said: “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…. It was not a good experience at all. I started where most actresses end up.”
However, it didn’t take long for Jean’s to impress the critics in her 1958 role in Bonjour Tristesse and her role in the French movie Breathless. DirectorJean-Luc Godard, made Jean a star even though her role in Breathless was considered too risquee in America. Jean was iconic in New Wave French films and young women cut their hair short to be “à la Seberg.” Over the next two decades, Jean’s celebrity status grew on both sides of the Atlantic.
In Hollywood, Jean was cast alongside Warren Beatty, Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Dean Martin and Burt Lancaster.
She appeared on the covers of Vogue and fashion magazines. When she married her second husband, a diplomat and writer named Roman Gary, the Kennedys invited her to the White House. So you can understand why her support for any revolutionary groups became a serious concern.
But Jean’s actions in the 1960s became more radical as her star rose and she became increasingly obsessed with ways to use her stardom for social justice causes. Remember the American government was hot off its 1950s anti-Red campaign in Hollywood to snuff out Communist activities. Writers like Dalton Trumbo were blacklisted political victims and stripped of rights. This was gut-wrenching knowing Trumbo wrote some of the century’s greatest films including Spartacus and Roman Holiday.
In fact, we need only look to world history to witness the dangers of speaking out against war and unjust government activities. Civil rights advocates like Martin Luther King were struck down and women like the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova became targets for rebuke and condemnation. The campaign to neutralize Jean Seberg, to wipe her from the pages of history as if she had never existed, was in many respects successful.
But like all revolutionaries vilified and misaligned, there is always the underlying promise of change when victims stay the course with strength and determination. Jean did, right to the end. While her death was ruled a suicide after she went missing for nine days and was found dead in her car, Jean’s fight eventually resulted in change. The government admitted to stalking her and playing a hand in publishing untrue stories that led to the miscarriage of her second child.
Admittedly, WomanScape warned in our Sunday newsletter that it’s dangerous to dream and question the status quo. But what happens if we aren’t vigilant and willing to fight for and protect our right to freedom, privacy and truth. I’d like to remember Seberg in the way her Rabbi friend did
“She had this need in her to make the world a better place. All you had to say to her was ‘people are being hurt.’”
To learn more about Jean, consider Gary McGee’s Jean Seberg — Breathless.