The career of actress Jean Seberg began with seemingly unlimited promise: A small-town girl from the heartland of America, she created an overnight sensation when she was selected from a pool of 18,000 candidates for what seemed a certain future of fame and celebrity. The dream quickly became a nightmare, however, and both her career and her life spiralled out of control as she became a victim of unrealized expectations, exploitative films, and even her own ideals. Born November 13, 1938, in Marshalltown, IA, Seberg harbored acting dreams throughout her childhood, appearing in local productions of dramas like Our Town and Picnic. She was just 17 when director Otto Preminger selected her from a national talent search to star as Joan of Arc in his 1957 production of Saint Joan, but when reviews of the film as well as her performance were uniformly negative, it appeared that her career was already over. In an act of defiance, Preminger then cast Seberg again -- as another French girl, no less -- in his next project, Bonjour Tristesse. Again, however, her future looked grim, and this time even Preminger gave up on her, passing her contract on to Columbia, where they cast her in 1959's The Mouse That Roared for lack of a better project.
Seberg was already written off by Hollywood when French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, previously known as a critic for the influential journal Cahiers du Cinema, requested her to co-star with Jean-Paul Belmondo in his feature debut À Bout de Souffle. By sheer coincidence, she was already in Paris at the time, having just married attorney Francois Moreuil, and Columbia loaned her out for practically nothing. As a pixieish American romancing a French thug, Seberg delivered an impressive performance in what was to quickly emerge as one of the seminal films of the postwar era. Suddenly she was a hot property, and Columbia quickly ordered her to return to the U.S. to appear in the anti-drug drama Let No Man Write My Epitaph. Hollywood simply had no idea how to use Seberg, but in Europe she was much sought after. She next appeared in La Recreation, and in 1961 Philippe de Broca cast her in his L'Amant de Cinq Jours (aka Five Day Lover). She also appeared in another Godard project, but the mercurial director lost interest and never even began editing the completed footage.
Upon returning to America, Seberg closed out her Columbia contract with Robert Rossen's underrated 1964 drama Lilith, then reunited with Belmondo for Echappement Libre. She continued moving back and forth from American films to French productions, starring in Mervyn LeRoy's 1966 drama Moment to Moment and Irvin Kershner's A Fine Madness before crossing the Atlantic to appear in Claude Chabrol's La Ligne De Demarcation and Jacques Bernard's Estouffade a la Caraibe. For her second husband, writer/director Romain Gary, Seberg also starred in 1968's Les Oiseaux Vont Mourir au Perou. She remained a major star in Europe, but back home there was little interest in her work, despite a plum role in 1969's Paint Your Wagon. In fact, she gained greater notoriety for her high-profile involvement in the civil rights movement, especially her controversial support of the Black Panthers, which even aroused the ire of the FBI. Ultimately, J. Edgar Hoover planted a fallacious story in Newsweek that the father of Seberg's unborn child was a member of the Black Panther Party; the pregnancy resulted in a premature birth, and the baby girl lived for less than two days before dying on August 25, 1970.
Though plagued by personal problems, Seberg, who had most recently appeared in Airport, continued working, first in the 1971 Italian production Questa Specie d'Amore, then reuniting with Gary (whom she'd already divorced) in his 1972 thriller Kill. A year later she appeared in L'Attentat (aka The French Conspiracy), then married Dennis Berry, the son of the expatriate American filmmaker John Berry. On May 1, 1973, tragedy struck again when Hakim Jamal, a black activist to whom Seberg had previously been linked, was brutally murdered. As the decade progressed, she acted with greater infrequency, co-starring with Kirk Douglas in the 1974 television movie Mousey before returning to Europe to appear in a few other pictures not released to the foreign market. Die Wildente (aka Wild Duck), from 1976, was her last picture. Seberg was scheduled to appear in La Legion Saute sur Kolwezi, a project from Georges de Beauregard -- the producer of À Bout de Souffle -- but before filming began, she was found dead on September 8, 1979. Filmmaker Mark Rappaport's "fictional documentary" From the Journals of Jean Seberg premiered in 1995.