By Jonathan Turner
For the Dispatch-Argus, October 3, 2010
Fifty years ago, a fresh-faced 21-year-old Iowa girl helped give the groundbreaking French film "Breathless" its liberating jolt of jazzy Parisian cool.
Jean Seberg -- a native of Marshalltown (between Cedar Rapids and Ames) -- led an internationally glamorous, difficult and tumultuous life, and her 40 years are being chronicled in a new feature-length documentary by award-winning Moline filmmakers Kelly and Tammy Rundle and Emmy-nominee Garry McGee. A 12-minute featurette they produced is on a new 50th anniversary DVD of "Breathless."
"Movie Star: The Secret Lives of Jean Seberg" is the first film to focus on the private side of the famous blonde actress, who at 17 was chosen by Otto Preminger to play Joan of Arc (in "Saint Joan") out of nearly 18,000 hopefuls. The new film also examines Ms. Seberg's American and international film career, civil rights activism, and her mysterious 1979 death in Paris.
"She is a fascinating person and still has a huge following all around the world," producer Tammy Rundle said recently. "Our documentary will dispel many of the myths surrounding Jean's life, work and untimely death."
"We just want to do something that's fair to Jean. We're not going to gloss over her problems, but not just perpetuate things that make her seem worse than she really was," she said.
"Like all of us, Jean had other sides to her besides that public persona," Mr. Rundle said, noting she wasn't a saint. "She was funny, had a great sense of humor. She was the kind of person you would want to know and be your friend."
"She was human, like all of us," Ms. Rundle agreed, noting their film will offer the whole, complex picture. "She had something to her. She was both strong and vulnerable at the same time."
Previous documentaries about Ms. Seberg "run the gamut from bad to mean-spirited," Mr. Rundle said. "They have a tendency to repeat myths as opposed to factual information," and those myths include how many times she was married and how she died, he said.
The Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) states that she committed suicide, she had four husbands, and she tried to kill herself on each anniversary of her daughter Nina's 1970 death. The child died two days after she was born prematurely. All are false, according to the Rundles and McGee.
Life and times
Born in 1938 in Marshalltown, Seberg declared when she was 5, "I'm going to be a movie star," Mr. Rundle said. As a teenager, she already was poised and articulate. After high school, she appeared in several plays on the East Coast. She planned to study at the University of Iowa, but before classes beganshe was chosen -- out of 18,000 aspiring actresses -- by director Otto Preminger in 1956 to star in "Saint Joan" with Richard Widmark and John Gielgud.
Though that and a second Preminger film failed commercially and critically, Ms. Seberg catapulted to international stardom as the female lead in Jean-Luc Godard's first feature, "Breathless," in 1960. Her husband at the time was friends with the director, and she learned French quickly, Mr. Rundle noted.
"It was ahead of its time," he said, making use of "jump cuts" common in today's films. "The film still feels contemporary. It's rejecting Hollywood and the formality of all that, and is also an homage to Hollywood."
"It holds up very well," Ms. Rundle said.
Ms. Seberg used her position to help launch careers of other first-time film directors, and her command of four languages allowed her to act in several European films, according to the new documentary's website, www.JeanSebergMovie.com.
After her performance in the 1964 film "Lilith," Ms. Seberg's career flourished and produced such hits as
"Paint Your Wagon" (1969) and "Airport" (1970),allowing her to alternate between big-budget Hollywood movies and small European films.
She was a socially conscious person, first joining the NAACP at 14. Throughout her adult years, Ms. Seberg contributed financially to several organizations, including some that were considered radical, such as the Black Panther Party.
"Jean was very involved in contributing to charities, trying to help people in need," Ms. Rundle said.
She supported the Black Panthers' Free Breakfast Program, which provided hot meals to underprivileged children, but she never joined the party itself. However, it was Ms. Seberg's support of the Black Panthers that resulted in surveillance by the FBI from 1969 through 1972.
An FBI-instigated rumor said the father of her second unborn child was a "black militant." At the time, Ms. Seberg was married to French novelist/diplomat Romain Gary, with whom she had a son in 1962.
The story was printed as fact in Newsweek and 100 newspapers in August 1970. Ms. Seberg went into labor three months early. The child, Nina Hart Gary lived for just two days. Ms. Seberg took her dead daughter to Marshalltown for burial to show the public the rumor was a lie.
"A lot of people from her generation believe to this day the information put out by the FBI. That's something we want to clear up," Ms. Rundle said. "She felt betrayed by her government."
Among their interviews, the Rundles and McGee recently went to San Francisco to film Elaine Brown, a Black Panther member close to Ms. Seberg. They also interviewed a man in Los Angeles who has the largest collection of Seberg memorabilia in the world.
The hounding by the FBI and her daughter's death sent the actress on a downward spiral, resulting in hospital stays, battles with medications and alcohol, and mental instability, according to the film site.
"Jean had problems with depression, with alcohol abuse, and prescription drug abuse after her daughter died," Mr. Rundle said.
Ms. Seberg's life ended in Paris on Aug. 30, 1979, a mysterious and still-unsolved death. Friends and family doubt she killed herself, since she was filming a movie at the time and she had made plans to visit Marshalltown in the autumn.
"The police could not definitively say" if her death was suicide, Mr. Rundle said. "There's evidence to suggest she was murdered."
She went out in the middle of the night, and after being reported missing Aug. 30, her dead body was found Sept. 8, 1970, dressed in a nightgown and wrapped in a blanket in the back seat of her parked car, Mr. Rundle said. The official report showed she overdosed on prescription drugs and had a high blood-alcohol level, though there was no liquor bottle in the car. She also was not wearing glasses, which she used to drive, the filmmaker said.
After the discovery of her body, her second husband Romain Gary held a press conference and claimed, "Jean Seberg was destroyed by the FBI."
Fifteen months later, he committed suicide in the same apartment the two shared during their marriage. While Ms. Seberg was married three times, her last boyfriend (Ahmed Hasni) is incorrectly listed on imdb.com as her fourth husband. She had filed for divorce, which had not been finalized at the time of her death.
"Movie Star" was conceived nearly 20 years ago by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Garry McGee, author of "Jean Seberg: Breathless" and co-author of "Neutralized: The FBI vs Jean Seberg" and producer of "The Last Wright".
The Rundles worked for 24 years in the film industry in L.A., and were contacted by Mr. McGee to partner on the film. Their company, Fourth Wall Films, specializes in historical documentaries for public television and DVD home video. The Rundles have been based in Moline since 2007.
"The Jean Seberg documentary will feature exclusive interviews and archival materials from Jean's family and other members of her personal circle," Mr. Rundle said. Both he and Mr. McGee are writing, producing and directing, and Ms. Rundle sharing producing and writing duties.
"This story was right up our alley," Mr. Rundle added. "We're always looking for stories that have regional awareness that deserve national attention." An Iowa native, Mr. McGee is back in his hometown of Elma, near Mason City.
The Rundles have made the documentaries"Villisca: Living with a Mystery," released theatrically and qualified for the 2005 Academy Award competition, and "Lost Nation: The Ioway," which won Best Documentary at the 2008 Iowa Independent Film Festival.
Their latest,"Country School: One Room -- One Nation," will premiere Friday, Nov. 19 at the State Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines. "Movie Star" is slated for release in late 2011.