She was a looker, a Midwestern innocent from Marshalltown, Iowa who somehow, at age 17, managed to best some 18,000 hopefuls and snare the role of Joan of Arc in director Otto Preminger’s 1957 biopic, Saint Joan.
But Jean Seberg is at her best in her fourth movie, as “Patricia Franchini,” the very pretty, not-so-innocent abroad who betrays her gangster-on-the-run boyfriend (Jean-Paul Belmondo, pictured above) in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 French classic, Breathless.
Breathless was more than a serendipitous Godsend to Seberg’s career — it was its salvation.
After appearing in two Hollywood bombs from Preminger (Saint Joan, Bonjour Tristesse) her career fell off a cliff. She later said she spent two years mired “in a very dark abyss.”
Godard admired Preminger and liked the 20-year-old, French-speaking pride of Marshalltown, Iowa. He cast Seberg with little fanfare, and began shooting in Paris in August of 1959.
Upon its release a year later, Breathless was declared a worldwide sensation although Godard himself admitted that “it is no Citizen Kane.” Seberg and Belmondo instantly became international stars.
In the ensuing two decades, Seberg made a slew of movies, many in Europe (she had moved permanently to France in the early Sixties) and most are eminently forgettable.
Her occasional Hollywood returns in the Sixties and early Seventies yielded roles in director Robert Rossen’s Lilith, playing a schizophrenic beloved by a therapist (Warren Beatty); in Joshua Logan’s 1969 musical Paint Your Wagon; and a stint in George Seaton’s disaster prototype Airport. (At loose ends maritally at the time she made Paint Your Wagon, Seberg had an affair with costar Clint Eastwood.)
She even re-teamed with Godard and Belmondo in separate 1964 crime capers. Under Godard’s direction in one episode — titled Le Grand Escroq (The Great Fraud) — of the compilation film, Les plus belles escroqueries du mond (The World’s Most Beautiful Frauds), Seberg got lost in a foreign cast that included Catherine Deneuve and Godard himself.
With Belmondo, she played the icily glamorous love interest in Enchappement libre (Backfire), director Jean Becker’s gem heist comedy. The Belmondo-Seberg reunion, four years after Breathless, came and went largely unnoticed, especially by Hollywood.
It was Rossen who described his female lead as “the All-American cheerleader who cracked up.” She married four times most notably from 1962 to 1970 to former French diplomat and novelist Roman Gary, who was 25 year Seberg’s senior.
It was Gary who wrote and directed Seberg’s 1968 movie, Birds In Peru, about a woman in search of an orgasm. Their marriage fell apart a year later, and Seberg embarked on affairs, drugs, alcohol and most dangerous of all — radical politics, which caught the attention of J.Edgar Hoover and the FBI.
Like Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda, Seberg flirted with various left wing causes in the late Sixties, notably the Oakland-based Black Panthers. But her involvement with the group moved beyond flirtation. She had affairs with at least two Panther figures, and supposedly ran guns for the cause.
During a separation from Gary, Jean at 31 became pregnant. A story was planted in the American press that she and Gary were trying to reconcile “even though the baby that Jean expects …is by another man — a black activist she met in California.” The baby, a girl named Nina, died days after her birth in August of 1970. The baby was white, supposedly the issue of Jean’s affair with a “revolutionary” student.
Seberg’s fragile mental condition deteriorated sharply. Suicide attempts occurred on the anniversary of the baby’s death. In August of 1979, the actress succeeded. Her breathless body was found under a blanket of a car parked on a Paris street. Empty vials of barbiturates were strewn about the vehicle.
Who knew — and certainly Seberg herself didn’t — that Breathless, the little, no-budget gangster drama made in Paris in the summer of 1959, would enthrall international movie audiences to this day, and make the ill-fated actress the durable face of one of the most creative periods in film history?