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FROM THE JOURNALS OF JEAN SEBERG(director/writer/cinematographer/editor: Mark Rappaport; cast: Mary Beth Hurt (Jean Seberg); Runtime: 97; Couch Potato; 1996)
“This is a clever film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A brilliant, witty mockumentary of Jean Seberg, that puts words in her mouth that she might have approved of but did not actually say — these are Mark Rappaport’s words. Proving once again that she is being exploited, though in a benevolent way this time, by a film that rails against her exploitation. She was exploited by the director, Otto Preminger, who discovered this 17-year-old in a nationwide star search for an unknown to play the juicy part in his Saint Joan. The irrepressible Preminger who is always the charming party guest, the publicity hound, the tyrannical director, and the woman’s director, all rolled into one. She was also exploited by her second husband, Romaine Gary, who poked fun at her political views and humiliated her in his films. There was also the brief affair she had with the future Hollywood star, Clint Eastwood, which meant nothing to him and everything to her. The F.B.I. under J. Edgar Hoover was guilty of spreading malicious rumors about her, falsely saying she was pregnant with a black child, trying everything possible to ruin her career and life.

Mary Beth Hurt is a perfect Jean Seberg, looking and sounding like her, imitating the easy way she talked, while reflecting her small-town Midwestern roots. This journal (a journal that she never kept) takes us through her innocent years up to her suicide in 1979, when she was 40 and when she had resolved that she couldn’t be the somebody that she wasn’t.

Rappaport explores the early film life of Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda, who started out the same time she did and were roughly the same age and were exploited as much as she was but who survived to find their own identity and stardom. The difference between their success and her failure he points out, is that these stars had a distinguished family name to see them through. This film is as much about them as it is about her. It covers the film industry that proudly is called “showbiz” he says, not “showart.”

Jean’s involvement with the Black Panthers was an effort to be of help to the downtrodden, to get a program going for the black kids who were exploited by the system, for them to get a better education and nutritional food in their belly. She innocently thought that maybe violence was some kind of answer to the poverty and injustice she saw as rife in the black community. By this time her life had taken a downward turn, she was heavily into drinking and taking drugs and her judgment was certainly questionable.

Preminger, the egotist he was, answered the critics who panned her acting ability in Saint Joan by giving her another starring part in his next film Bonjour Tristesse, where she played the younger woman who was in love with an older man. Otto realized that the critics panned her, in part, with such glee, because they wanted him to look bad.

Bonjour Tristesse is the film that the French critic and soon to be New Wave cinema icon, Jean-Luc-Godard, saw her in. He took her to Paris to play in the critically acclaimed Breathless. She was to appear in many films afterwards but her best role might have been in a film few people saw or cared about, Lilith, where she holds her own with such future stars and scene-stealers as Peter Fonda and Warren Beatty.

This film challenges our credibility, it offers a fascinating look at the world of make believe and the politics of the times, telling us secrets that may or may not be true. It also enlightens us that Seberg’s stare into the camera was basically a no-no for an actor to do at that time, but is now acceptable—making her a trendsetter. The voice-over says, “she felt the camera was stealing her soul.”

This is a clever film, immensely satisfying and enjoyable; and, fortunately, the director casts Jean in a favorable light. She deserves that.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”