November 13, 1938– Jean Seberg
What actually makes a person a Gay Icon? Glamour, flamboyance, power over adversity, androgyny? Gay Icons are sometimes tragic, sometimes martyred figures, a personality that represents the paradox of fame, which uplifts and empowers the idols it eventually destroys. Shall we consider Jean Seberg?
Seberg first made it big as the face of the French New Wave Cinema. Her Iowa hometown newspaper wrote: “Her future could not be brighter”. But, she began her career in the USA when she beat out 18,000 other girls in Otto Preminger‘s nationwide contest for the role of Joan of Arc in his controversial film Saint Joan (1957). A year later, she was chosen over Audrey Hepburn for the lead in Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse. I first discovered Seberg in film class, watching her work in Jean-Luc Godard‘s Breathless (1960) opposite a breathtakingly hot Jean-Paul Belmondo.
My university professor described the film’s cinematography as “lush” and the camera work as “revolutionary”, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of Seberg playing the coquettish but villainous American journalist who betrays her con-artist boyfriend while he’s on the run from the police authorities.
Seberg had a kind of casual but rebellious beauty, with her cropped blond hair that predated Mia Farrow‘s style in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) by nearly a decade. Her iconic fashion style included sailor tops and simple striped dresses. She represented a striking alternative to the kind of femininity of the 1950s and early 1960s. She was graceful but nervous, and she spoke French with a distinctly American accent. Her character in Breathless was defiant, yet demure. As a gay guy still unsure of my place in the world, I related to her famous line from Breathless:
“I don’t know if I’m unhappy because I’m not free, or if I’m not free because I’m unhappy.”
There was more to Seberg than her fashion sense, but it was the first thing that I noticed about her. I discovered that she was friends with Velvet Underground vocalist, Andy Warhol superstar Nico, I thought she was just too cool.
When Seberg began her career in her late teens, the studios pressured her to be flawless. She was coached to improve her acting and forced to remove moles from her face and maintain a slender frame for the screen.
She was savaged by the critics for her debut performance in Saint Joan. The reviews pointed out her inexperience as an actor. Journalist Mike Wallace interviewed Seberg in 1953, when she still was just a teenager, prodding:
“You are a synthetic star. You have no real professional background. You are a pretty girl, but not the prettiest girl in the world… If you had it to do again, would you rather learn your job first and become a celebrity second, or would you be perfectly content to do it the quick and easy way you’ve done it?”
Seberg somehow managed to be both tactful and vulnerable when she responded:
“I have trusted the judgment of critics on any number of other things and there’s no reason I should distrust them after they take a crack at me.”
She spoke in admiration for nonconformist actors like Marlon Brando:
“I recognize that they try to protect those things that make them individuals.”
After the critical reaction to Bonjour Tristesse, Seberg wrote honestly about the impact of being young and dealing with her personal problems, including a divorce and being briefly institutionalized. She went to France after the pair of Preminger films flopped, and she learned French for her role in Breathless.
In the late 1960s, she became interested in social justice issues. Seberg became a member of the NAACP and wrote:
“I can think of a thousand reasons for my joining the NAACP that make me sound terrific, but the only valid reason I can think of is a kind of alienation. I was raised in a rather strict atmosphere, and I thought that other people who were alienated in other ways must feel much more deeply.”
She spoke out against the Vietnam War and contributed a significant amount of money to the Black Panther Party. This gave her a special place on cross-dressing FBI director J. Edgar Hoover‘s list of subversives, his manual of secret intelligence pertaining to anyone suspected of being “An enemy of the United States”. Her phones were tapped, plus her comings and goings were monitored by the FBI for years. This won my heart, because she certainly suffered the consequences of speaking her mind. It’s difficult to believe that in our current era, the FBI are the good guys.
The FBI’s illegal counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) planted a rumor in a gossip column claiming that Seberg was pregnant with one of the Black Panther member’s child. The intense surveillance and harassment contributed to stress that led her to go into labor eight weeks early and she lost the baby. Seberg never fully recovered. She continued to work in films, but she suffered a series of nervous breakdowns and her career went into a decline. Along with Jane Fonda, Seberg was effectively blacklisted in Hollywood.
Seberg starred in 36 films in Hollywood and Europe. The landmark À Bout De Souffle (Breathless) was her most important movie. It was an international success and critics praised Seberg’s performance. Director François Truffaut named her “The Best Actress in Europe”. Seberg then married her director François Moreuil when she played the lead in his film, La Recréation (1961). In Hollywood, she starred opposite Warren Beatty in Lilith (1964), and she charmingly sang and danced in the clunky film version of the Lerner and Lowe musical Paint Your Wagon (1969) co-starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. Seberg also starred in the all-star disaster flick Airport (1970) featuring Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin.
She had several scandalous love affairs and married four times, including to writer Romain Gary, who was a quarter of a century older than Seberg. All of her marriages ended in divorce.
In 1979, Seberg killed herself by overdosing on barbiturates. Her body was found wrapped in a blanket in the back seat of her Renault, parked close to her Paris apartment in the 16th Arrondissement. Her note read: “I could no longer live with my nerves.” She was just 40 years old.
After her passing, the FBI released documents under the Freedom Of Information Act and admitted their defamation of Seberg. The FBI’s campaign against Seberg resulted in a Time cover; “The FBI vs. Jean Seberg”, which led to an inquiry into her case by a Senate Select Committee known as “The Church Committee” after the Idaho Democratic Senator Frank Church who presided, in an era when Idaho had Democrats. The Seberg case remains a hallmark case, still examined in this century in regards to intelligence abuses directed towards American citizens by their own government.
Her life story is simply begging to be made into a film. Who could play Seberg and get it right? She was a rebel with a cause in a world that just wasn’t ready for her. Watching clips from her film to prepare for this post left me breathless.