“From the Journals of Jean Seberg” and “Jean Seberg: American Actress,” Nov. 1999

I recently realized that almost all of the movie reviews I wrote for the Asahi Shimbun in the 90s and early 00s are not available on the Internet, so I will remedy that by slowly, methodically posting them here on my blog. I have not edited these, so all the prejudices and dumb assessments remain. Enjoy.

Jean Seberg’s body was found in a car on a Paris street in 1979 and reported as a suicide. Some acquaintances of the American actress, who was 40 when she died, suspect she was a victim of foul play. Given the tabloid circumstances of much of Seberg’s life and the fact that her career was on film, there’s enough material for a full-length documentary, and this month Uplink Factory presents two.

Mark Rappaport’s From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995) touches on Seberg’s private life, but mainly it sets her career within the larger context of what it means to be a movie actress. Rappaport not only invented the “journal” from which the narration is supposedly derived, but hired actress Mary Beth Hurt to play Seberg reading it.

The director did something similar with his previous dead movie star doc, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992), but the actor he used for that film, Eric Farr, played the young, closeted gay movie star commenting on his heterosexual screen persona. Hurt does something different. She represents Seberg at the age she would have been had she lived, and she delivers her lines in a deadpan, often ironic tone of voice: the actress speaking out of bitter experience from beyond the grave.

According to Rappaport, Seberg, who was discovered by Otto Preminger when she was 17 during a well-publicized international search for an ingenue to play Joan of Arc, never became a great actress. Her importance as a screen icon in both the U.S. and France, where she created a sensation at the age of 21 in Godard’s Breathless, is that she forms a bridge between the studio idols of Hollywood and more independent actresses of the 60s and 70s, such as Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave.

Journals is as much film criticism as it is biography. Rappaport’s explication of the “Hollywood close-up” is funny and thought-provoking. He even manages to draw a line that connects Russian Formalism to the French New Wave to Clint Eastwood.

Sometimes, the script belabors the obvious, especially Seberg’s exploitation by older men (directors, husbands, and director-husbands). But due to Hurt’s portrayal, Seberg herself comes across as an intelligent, complex human being and not just a tragic symbol. She also has a deliciously dry sense of humor. “The good news is that I got the part,” she says about her audition for Joan. “The bad news is that the film got made.”

Jean Seberg: American Actress (1995) is a more conventional documentary chronicling the actress’s rise and fall through interviews that focus more on her private life. Despite the title, the filmmakers, Donatello and Fosco Dubini, who are Swiss, seem less interested in Seberg’s career than in her victimhood at the hands of the press and the FBI. Most of the documentary, in fact, covers the 1970s when Seberg’s career was mainly behind her and she was more famous for supporting the Black Panthers.

Though it’s obvious the Dubinis sympathize with their subject, their methods exploit Seberg once again. Many of the interviewees are persons who only knew the actress in passing, and therefore have a kind of desperate quality to them, as if the filmmakers were investigating a serial killer. In true conspiracy fashion, they leave her death open to interpretation, thus fueling any doubts the audience might have that it was a suicide.

Rappaport’s Seberg is vague about the way she died. But even if Journals seems less interested in the tabloid aspects, it is more effective in driving home the cost of Seberg’s slight yet significant fame. When Hurt describes the daughter Seberg gave birth to prematurely during the height of her persecution by the FBI and which died several days later, her voice cracks for the first time. The records of the Bureau’s heartless campaign against her are no secret since they can be obtained under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. “Read ’em and weep,” Hurt says, the ironic tone replaced by acid contempt that cuts to the bone. “I did.”

In such a way, Rappaport accomplishes something that the Dubinis’ film—or any journalistic documentary, for that matter—can’t. It allows its deceased subject to have the last word on the people who ruined her life.

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