November 13, 1938- Jean Seberg. What makes a person a Gay Icon? Glamour, flamboyance, power over adversity, androgyny? Gay Icons are sometimes tragic, sometimes martyred figures, a personality that represents paradox of fame, which uplifts & empowers the idols it eventually destroys.
Seberg first made it big as the face of the French New Wave. Her Iowa hometown newspaper wrote: “her future could not be brighter.” She began her career 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 Jean-Luc Godard’s landmark Breathless (1960) opposite a breathtakingly hot Jean-Paul Belmondo.
My professor who described the films cinematography as lush & the camera works as revolutionary, but I was drawn to Seberg’s portrayal of the coquettish but villainous American journalist who betrays her con-artist boyfriend while he’s on the run from the law.
She had a kind of casual but rebellious beauty, with cropped blond hair that predated Mia Farrow’s style in Rosemary’s Baby 8 years later. Her iconic style included sailor tops & simple striped dresses. She represented an alternative to the kind of femininity in the 1950s & early 1960s. She was graceful but nervous, & 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 style, but it was the first thing that I noticed about her. When I discovered that she was friends with Andy Warhol superstar & Velvet Underground vocalist 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 & forced to remove moles from her face & to 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. In 1958, journalist Mike Wallace interviewed Seberg, still 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 & become a celebrity second, or would you be perfectly content to do it the quick & easy way you’ve done it?”
Seberg managed to be both tactful & vulnerable:
“I have trusted the judgment of critics on any number of other things & there’s no reason I should distrust them after they take a crack at me.”
She spoke in admiration for nonconformists like Marlon Brando & Steve McQueen:
“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 & dealing with her personal problems, including a divorce, & being briefly institutionalized. She went to France after the pair of Preminger films flopped, & she learned French for her role in Breathless.
In the late 1960s, she gravitated to social justice issues. Seberg became a member of the NAACP & said:
“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, & I thought that other people who were alienated in other ways must feel much more deeply.”
She spoke out against the Vietnam War & contributed a significant amount of money to the Black Panther Party. This gave her a special place on FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s list of subversives, a manual of secret intelligence pertaining to anyone suspected of being “an enemy of the United States.” Her phones were tapped, plus her comings & goings were monitored by the FBI for years. This won my heart, because she certainly suffered the consequences of speaking her mind.
The FBI’s counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) planted a rumor in a gossip column claiming that Seberg was pregnant with a Black Panther’s child. The intense surveillance & harassment contributed to stress that led her to go into labor 8 weeks early & she lost the baby. Seberg never fully recovered. She continued to work in films, but she suffered a series of nervous breakdowns & her career went into a decline. Along with Jane Fonda, Seberg was effectively blacklisted in Hollywood.
Seberg starred in 36 films in Hollywood & Europe. À Bout De Souffle (Breathless) was an international success & critics praised Seberg’s performance. François Truffaut named her “the best actress in Europe.” She married François Moreuil & played the lead in his film, La Recréation (1961). In Hollywood, she starred opposite Warren Beatty in Lilith (1964), & sang & danced in the clunky film version of the Lerner & Lowe musical Paint Your Wagon (1969) co-starring Lee Marvin & Clint Eastwood. Seberg also starred in the disaster film Airport (1970) opposite Burt Lancaster & Dean Martin.
She had several scandalous love affairs & married 4 times, including to writer Romain Gary, who was a quarter of a century older than Seberg. All of the 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, & admitted their defamation of Seberg. The FBI’s campaign against Seberg resulted in a Time Magazine 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 Senator Frank Church who presided. 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 & 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.