Most film lovers are familiar with Jean Seberg. Her iconic look in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless has been imitated so many times that even people who have never heard her name are familiar with her work. But Seberg was more than just a blond pixie cut and a bad French accent. She was a progressive, even a revolutionary political activist. She was also the victim of one of the most vicious FBI smear campaigns in the history of Cointelpro.
Daniel Levine — the director of the new film American Plain Songs — briefly introduced us to the work of Mark Rapport last year. Rappaport, who’s almost completely unknown to the general public, but highly regarded among film critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum and the late Roger Ebert, has made what might be the only documentary that does Jean Seberg justice as a political activist and feminist. His approach, an imaginary, “found” autobiography read by an actress who looks almost, but not quite like Jean Seberg, he not only rescues her from the movies. It rescues her from herself.
Mary Beth Hurt, like Jean Seberg, is a blond American “girl next door” with a pixie cut, and a flat, Midwestern accent. But, 50 years old in 1995, she lacks Seberg’s movie star glamor. Rappaport could have easily cast a more beautiful actress in the role. Chloe Sevigny in her Kids/Trees Lounge days looked remarkably like a rougher version of the young Jean Seberg. But Seberg as a plain, middle-aged woman – someone who looks like your English professor – is entirely Mark Rappaport’s point. Mary Beth Hurt is the real Jean Seberg, not the glamorized icon of the French New Wave. In Rappaport’s imagination, she becomes the woman she might have become had she not been destroyed by J. Edgar Hoover, and a series of abusive husbands.
In Mark Rappaport’s “found” diary, not quite history, yet not quite fiction, Seberg becomes a lost voice of the 1960s counter culture. She starts at age 17, when she was chosen by Otto Preminger to star in his film Saint Joan, not in spite of, but because of her lack of acting experience. Preminger wanted to cast an actress the same age as the real Joan of Arc, but what worked for Franco Zeffirelli in Romeo and Juliet fell flat for Otto Preminger. Seberg was terribly miscast as Joan. What’s more, as Seberg/Rappaport/Hurt make clear, realism isn’t always “realistic.” Sometimes it’s just distracting. The fact that Seberg was actually burned by the real fire Preminger set to consume the fictional Joan of Arc adds nothing to the story’s dramatic impact, as Rappaport makes clear when he juxtaposes images from Preminger’s clumsy film to Dreyer’s masterpiece, The Passion of John of Arc.
Even worse, Seberg’s relationship with Preminger, who liked to bully young actresses, probably set the template for her marriage to Romain Gary, an abusive relationship that made her all the more vulnerable to the attacks by the FBI’s Cointelpro program. If Seberg was miscast, as Saint Joan, Seberg maintains, then it was because Joan, unlike Juliet, an ordinary teenage girl, was a woman of heroic stature. When she mentions Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave as two actresses who would have probably done better in the role, it’s more than just an offhanded suggestion. Instead, in a remarkable sequence, Mark Rappaport weaves the lives of Seberg, Redgrave, Fonda, three women dedicated to radical politics as well as film, into a single thread, making a familiar side of the 1960s even more familiar by re-imagining it from a novel perspective.
Indeed, instead of going into a detailed history of how J. Edgar Hoover became obsessed with Seberg after she became a supporter of the Black Panthers, Rappaport shows us that she was part of a larger trend. Redgrave was widely vilified in the 1970s for her support of Palestinian nationalism. Seberg herself was subjected to a Cointelpro campaign in a large part of the corporate press, especially those newspapers loyal to the FBI. When she bore a stillborn baby to Romain Gary, she actually displayed it in a glass coffin to prove that the father had been white, and not a member of the Black Panthers, as Hoover had convinced so many newspaper reporters.
But it was Jane Fonda who became the focus of the venom of the American right, a hatred that lasted right through the Bush administration, and probably still exists today. Rappaport’s parallel lives of Fonda and Seberg are richly detailed, uncovering connections between the two women we never quite realized existed. Fonda’s failed audition in the film Klute, for example, has her reading lines from Preminger’s Saint Joan. Had she read for the part? Fonda’s early role in Barbarella as an insatiable sex kitten was later echoed in a Romain Gary film starring Seberg, where Seberg’s character, unlike Barbarella, is a nymphomaniac who can’t achieve an orgasm. If Jane Fonda survived Cointelpro and the right-wing smear campaign, Jean, or rather Mark Rappaport, maintains, then it was largely because of her wealthy family and privileged upbringing. She had resources she could draw on that a middle-class girl from the Midwest didn’t.
Nevertheless, while she didn’t die at the age of 40, racked by the drug and alcohol addiction that came from J. Edgar Hoover’s vendetta, Jane Fonda, in the end, backed down. Filming On Golden Pond with her father Henry Fonda, she issued an apology for her trip to North Vietnam. “Why?” Rappaport asks us, did Fonda apologize for her heroic opposition to the Vietnam War, and not for her role as a “bimbo” in Barbarella? The answer is obvious. We live in a culture that accepts women as bimbos, but not political activists. The FBI destroyed Jean Seberg because she stepped out of the role American conservatism demanded she play. They could handle her as a blond movie goddess. They couldn’t handle a woman who had supported racial justice in her teenage years – when she volunteered for the NAACP – and continued to support racial justice, and black nationalism, even after she became rich and famous.
Like the recent The Internet’s Own Boy, From the Journals of Jean Seberg is a powerful statement about how the United States destroys it’s best and brightest.