Jean Seberg: A Tribute program cover.
By Garry McGee
The Jean Seberg International Film Festival is gearing up for its opening on November 10-13, 2011 at the Orpheum Theater Center in Marshalltown, Iowa. It was almost twenty years ago that the very first tribute to Jean Seberg was held in her hometown of Marshalltown, on Saturday, August 15, 1992.
At the time I'd started production on the documentary film which was titled “In the American Style--The Jean Seberg Story”. The title was a take-off of her film “In the French Style”. I felt her story was an American one--a small town Midwestern girl becomes a movie star. That was the 'American Dream' for many girls in the 1940s and 50s.
But Jean Seberg became an actress, not simply a personality. While examining her films we learn: one, that Jean was willing to take risks by acting in international films and several genres, including art and commercial works; and two, she always believed the director was boss. The latter worked well at times, at other times not so much. As her high school drama teacher and friend Carol Hollingsworth told me, “Jean would have been better in some films if she were left to her own devices.”
In some works (especially in her latter films) she was able to do so. Witness “Ondata Di Calore (Dead of Summer)”, “Die Wildente (The Wild Duck)”, “Bianchi Cavalli d’Agosto (White Horses of Summer)”, and so on. Of course “Lilith”, in which she and director Robert Rossen worked together in dissecting the title character and how she should be portrayed, resulted in a great performance. The same with “Breathless” in which director Jean-Luc Godard primarily left Jean to her own devices. But then there are films where we see Jean Seberg the woman, not the actress per se. In those instances, she was following the director’s orders.
“Jean Seberg: A Tribute” came about because nothing had been done in Marshalltown (or Iowa for that matter) to recognise Seberg's career. Save for the “Saint Joan” Western Hemisphere premiere in 1957, there was nothing. Not when she was alive, nor after her death. I felt that was a glaring omission that needed to be rectified. She had helped revolutionise modern cinema, and she left a legacy of work consisting of 37 films. There had been Seberg film festivals in Chicago, New York, London, and Paris (and I’m sure others). Why not have one in the most obvious place--Marshalltown?
I spoke with several who took part in the documentary project and they all agreed it was a good idea. Sandy Schlesinger who knew Jean spoke with the powers-that-be from the Martha Ellen Tye Playhouse (which Jean helped dedicate in 1969), and it was agreed the Tribute could be held there. Two films were to be shown: “The Mouse That Roared” in the afternoon for family fare, and “Lilith” in the evening.
A small group of people offered to help put the Tribute together. It was small in number, but they were terrific. I learned it’s quality, not quantity when it comes to volunteers. Jean’s friend Roger Maxwell agreed to the Master of Ceremonies, and Richard Ness, a film teacher at Iowa State, agreed to speak about each film. I hired a projectionist as well. Posters and memorabilia were loaned from the Historical Society of Marshall County through Jeff Quam, and Kathie Willson, and her daughter helped sell tickets and programs.
Dale Smith (who was known as “The Man on the Street” with Marshalltown’s KFJB radio station) and his wife Pauline (who was secretary at Iowa State in the Tele-Communicative Arts department) also helped get the Tribute together. Dale and I went to several businesses in Marshalltown to acquire sponsorships for the event. None contributed. In the end, a couple of Jean’s friends and my family donated money to offset the cost of the event. Carol Hollingsworth came, as did Jean’s childhood friend Lynda Haupert and her husband David, and so did Mary Ann Seberg, along with her husband and friends. Some of my friends and family attended, and thankfully the true Jean Seberg supporters paid tribute that day.
“The Mouse That Roared” had 80 people in attendance; “Lilith” a little over 100. I felt there should have been more, but at least a tribute to Jean Seberg was realized in her hometown. Even more, as someone pointed out to me after the showing of “Lilith” when about half of the people congregated in the lobby to visit for almost an hour, “Look at this. Look at all of these people talking about Jean. The healing has begun.”
I’d hoped that once the Tribute was held, someone in the Marshalltown community would take over and make it an annual event. I lived more than two hours away and couldn’t head it up every year. I never dreamed almost two decades would pass before another city-wide recognition would take place. But this November, there will be, with plans for it to be an annual event, and thanks to a small group of people of quality and determination. Not unlike the person they are honoring--Jean Seberg.