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The Films of Jean Seberg - Michael Coates-Smith

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Paperback: 224 pages / Publisher: McFarland & Co Inc / Published: 15 May 2012 / Language: English

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      30.06.2013 19:05
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      A great find if you are a fan

      The Films of Jean Seberg was written by Michael Coates-Smith and Garry McGee and published in 2012. Books about Seberg were always non-existent save for David Richard's Played Out: The Jean Seberg Story but there has been a positive glut in the last several years. Well, two or three anyway. While the previous books about Seberg mainly focus on her troubled private life and ultimately tragic harassment from the FBI, this is refreshing and novel for presenting the first detailed examination of her unusual and at times remarkable film career. Seberg's initial taste of fame is worthy of a book itself. She was seventeen years old and still living in her sleepy home town of Marshalltown, Iowa, when she beat twenty thousand hopefuls to win the lead role in famed director Otto Preminger's 1957 George Bernard Shaw stage adapted Joan of Arc film Saint Joan. Preminger had conducted a nationwide search to find his lead and the delicately beautiful Seberg emerged from the gruelling thirty-seven day "talent contest" as the victor, even signing a seven year film contract with Preminger. When the critics savaged both the film and Seberg's performance ("I have two memories of Saint Joan," said Seberg. "The first was being burned at the stake in the picture. The second was being burned at the stake by the critics...") it appeared as if her career was over before it had even begun. But artistic respect and a more enduring fame of sorts, at least in Europe, was just around the corner. Her appearance in Jean-Luc Godard's 1959 New Wave film Breathless (À bout de souffle) as American student and aspiring journalist Patricia Franchini made her an instant fashion icon (the "Jean Seberg crop" pixie hair, striped shirts etc) and opened the door to working with Claude Chabrol, Yves Boisset, Jean Valere and Philippe de Broca. Her critically acclaimed performance in Robert Rossen's 1964 drama Lilith marked a high point in her acting and she would go on to appear in thirty-seven films.

      The book is split into three sections (From Saint to Sinner 1958-1963, The International Years 1963-1969, From Commercial to the Avant-garde 1970-1979) and has a wonderful biographical chapter at the start full of details about Seberg's life and what she was like as a person. She worked in her father's pharmacy at a teenager and used to read magazines during her break and dream of being a star. She competed in oratory competitions and it was actually her speech teacher who put her forward for the Saint Joan auditions. It's fairly remarkable really that she appeared in such a groundbreaking film as Breathless and remains something of a cult icon and yet America hardly remembers her at all. Seberg was an extraordinary person by all accounts. She spoke four languages and dined with presidents and revolutionaries. She was notoriously generous with her money and it's something of a bitter irony that this eventually played a part in her downfall. Despite a few appearances in mainstream films like Paint Your Wagon and Airport, she seemed to vanish in the seventies, her film career increasingly obscure and played out in Europe. Seberg, like Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, was not afraid to speak her mind on political issues and had given money to a revolutionary leftist group called the Black Panther Party to support their their Free Breakfast Program for underprivileged children. The Black Panthers were seen as a radical threat to America by the ever paranoid J Edgar Hoover and a shameless and disgraceful FBI plot to smear and discredit Seberg was formulated.

      After putting her under surveillance (during which time they broke into hotel rooms she was staying in and followed her around cities) the FBI instigated a fake gossip column rumour that - despite the fact she was married to French novelist Romain Gary - the father of her second unborn child was a militant Panther leader. This falsehood was reported as fact in hundreds of newspapers across the United States. "The possible publication of Seberg's plight could cause her embarrassment and serve to cheapen her image with the general public," the FBI secret memo explained. The unwelcome publicity and shock sent the actress into labour early and she lost her baby. Seberg never really recovered and - although she continued to work here and there, even directing a film herself - struggled with breakdowns, drugs and alcohol. She was found dead in her car in Paris in 1979 when she was forty years old. Seberg had been missing for ten days and mineral water and barbiturates were on the seat beside her. One fascinating question that the authors tackle here is the theory that Seberg was secretly blacklisted from Hollywood. Was this the reason her career never really gained much traction in her native country? There so much intrigue and speculation swirling around Seberg's career with themes like this. It's really interesting to read about if you are a fan and have studied her life. The authors believe this is a question that can never really be answered. Actors were blacklisted in Hollywood (Jane Fonda was blacklisted for a time) and as it was of course done secretly it becomes harder to fathom if Seberg fell victim after the FBI smear.

      It certainly seems as if it could have been possible but the book tends to lean towards the view that it was Seberg rather than Hollywood who gave the other one the elbow. Seberg disliked the "distasteful" scripts she received from Hollywood and always refused to do any nude scenes. She openly expressed her preference for the less lavish but friendlier and more close knit film sets of Europe. The book is laced with beautiful black and white photographs of Seberg and while more of a colour coffee table book approach might have been tempting I think I prefer the economical sepia design of the book. Very stylish. For the films you get cast and crew, a synopsis, a sample of what the critics of the time thought, and then notes. The authors really do a stellar job with this and offer a huge amount of information relating to the background and production of each film. Fascinating stuff. In a sense, Seberg did everything back to front and became a star before she could act. When she became an actress her star soon began to fade. It's fun to read about some of the more bizarre films in her back catalogue plus better known appearances in things like A Fine Madness with Sean Connery, Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse (where Seberg played a jealous teenage girl who plots to end her father's engagement, and the film bombed too, just like Saint Joan) and The Mouse That Roared, a fluffy sixties Peter Sellars comedy where Seberg was absolutely adorable.

      And of course Breathless. Breathless was shot on the hoof in real apartments and on busy streets to give it a documentary style. The French New Wave wanted to eschew the glossy production values of mainstream cinema and create something different. Seberg was only about twenty when she made the film and wafts through in luminescent style, always with a vague sense of mystery. The book reveals that Seberg wasn't convinced that Breathless would even be released when they were shooting the film but realised they might be onto something when she started viewing the rushes. In terms of mainstream fame her high water mark was probably Paint Your Wagon in 1969 with Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. Seberg beat competition from Diana Rigg and Julie Andrews to win the part although she was dubbed for the songs. This led to her receiving third billing in the following year's all star disaster epic Airport but that was pretty much it as far as Hollywood went. I also love the post-script chapter about her legacy and the fact that the book is at pains to insist that it was Seberg and not Mia Farrow who made the pixie crop haircut fashionable. Farrow adopted Seberg's gamine androgynous but still very feminine look but got the credit for inventing the haircut simply because she was much more famous. I suppose she was married to Frank Sinatra.

      The book leans towards the theory that Seberbg was overdirected in Saint Joan and this - plus her obvious nervousness - robbed her of the natural quality she displayed in subsequent films. The reviews would have crushed lesser spirits. One critic suggested Seberg should forget acting and return to Marshalltown to rejoin her fellow bumpkins and farmers. Ironic really that the small town American girl became the epitome of European sophistication. The Films of Jean Seberg is a must buy for fans, not only because this is the only proper volume about her film career in existence but also because it's a detailed and well researched book that was clearly a labour of love for the authors. It runs to about 225 pages and while more photographs might have been nice I like the fact that you don't feel short changed here at all when it comes to the films and the passages about her life. This book is a bit on the steep side at the time of writing and around £30 but if you are a fan I would certainly consider this and hopefully you'll eventually get a much better deal than that.

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