Hi, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your Classic Movies guys, here again today to introduce our two-part look at the abbreviated, sad career of Jean Seberg — the actress director Robert Rossen once described as “the all-American cheerleader who cracked up.”
We were enormously assisted in today’s report by Mark Rappaport’s crisp, informative video essay about the actress included in the superb Criterion Collection’s 50th anniversary DVD reissue of director Jean-Luc Goddard’s “Breathless,” the most memorable film of Seberg’s career.
Hollywood-centrics know her as the corn-fed 17-year-old unknown from Marshalltown, Iowa, by picked by Otto Preminger out of a field of some 18,000 prospects to play the title role of Joan of Arc in the director’s 1957 costume drama, “Saint Joan.”
It was billed as the biggest talent search since the quest for Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s “Gone With The Wind.”
Her screen test for the role amply demonstrates that Jean, who pinpointed her age at the time (1956) as 17 years and 11 months, was fresh-faced and gorgeous, an obvious choice for the part of the saintly “Maid of Orleans,” a French naif of heroic accomplishments done in by ruthlessly amoral 15the century aristocrats.
When the off-camera voice of Preminger asked Seberg, “do you want to be an actress,” she earnestly replied, “very badly.” Well, “badly” sums up how things went with the youthful actress during the making “Saint Joan” under the infamously dictatorial Otto.
Years later, Seberg told a French interviewer that the whole experience permanently damaged her. She compared Preminger to a “tank, who crushes people and terrifies them. He yells and shouts and insults you. Bit by bit I drew back inside myself like a turtle.” Despite this, Seberg again wound up under Preminger’s direction in the 1958 screen version of French writer Francoise Sagan’s “Bonjour Tristesse” (Hello Sadness), playing the spoiled, worldly-beyond-her-years daughter of playboy father (David Niven).
Both “Bonjour” and “Saint Joan” were firebombed by the critics, and the still teenaged Seberg feared her acting career was finished.
But what she hadn’t counted on was the enthusiasm for her and Preminger’s work harbored by Godard and Francois Truffaut, critics at the French buff journal Cahier du Cinema — and on the cusp of becoming directors and originators of the fabled French “new wave.”
Godard was planning on making a mixture policier-character study titled “A bout de souffle” (Breathless) with French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo cast as a low-level crook on the run who falls for a not-what-she-seems pretty, young American (Seberg) hawking copies of the International Herald Tribune on the Champs-Elysees.
Godard saw Seberg’s character as a “continuation of her role in ‘Bonjour Tristesse.’ I could have taken the last shot of Preminger’s film and started (‘Breathless’) after dissolving to a title, ‘Three Years Later.'”
The on-the-fly shooting of “Breathless” on streets of Paris and in a cramped hotel room (Chambre 12 of the Hotel de Suede, since torn down). It was in all a process described at the time as “organized chaos,” and it unnerved the 20-year-old Seberg. She was accustomed to Hollywood studio-style efficiency.
She was paid just under $10,000 to make the picture (about $75,000 in today’s dollars) the biggest line item in the bare-bones-budget picture. Although she was fluent in French, her dialogue arrived via prompts from Godard AS the scene was being filmed. Seberg had no hopes for the picture at all.
She was wrong. When “Breathless” was released in 1960, its free-form visual style electrified international critics and film fans. The picture was compared to Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane” and to Robert Rossellini ‘s “Open City,” shot in 1945 in the streets of Rome. Seberg and Belmondo ascended to international stardom, and Godard embarked on perhaps the most restlessly experimental career in film history.
Stay tuned! We’ll take a look at Seberg’s post-“Breathless” career in our next blog. Warning: The end is not pretty.