A Tragic Star
It is a common enough claim to say that someone's life is difficult, that their childhood was tough, their teen years confused and their adult years complicated, but few lives would seem to have been more so than Jean Seberg's. Let us take one moment from it, the period in the late sixties when she was married to Romain Gary, in love with Clint Eastwood, and having an affair with black activist Hakim Jamal, before going to Mexico for a shoot. There, she starts dating Carlos Fuentes and also sleeps with a Mexican revolutionary, Carlos Ornelas Navarra. She then becomes pregnant with the latter's child.
We offer the above not to throw around the salacious but to comprehend a life lived at an emotional pitch that must have been exhausting. If Sartre believed hell is other people, maybe that was hyperbole: with hell becoming other people when there are too many of them and too close. Seberg's child from Navarra died after two days, and Seberg very understandably broke down. She may never have recovered, and it made sense that Philippe Garrel, that forensic of the soul, would film her silently in Les Hautes Solitudes. She wasn't alone in that film, but Garrel is the type of filmmaker who can make all men and women an island, to propose that a character is part of an archipelago and that solitude is the baseline and conviviality the surrender.
Most of the time we aren't inclined to see this surrender, though more recently an entire psychobabble has developed around the idea that perhaps hell is others and that sometimes we might wish to be an island. Lily Scherlis, exploring the term boundaries, says "I am not anti-boundaries, but they are so rarely questioned because they have a seductive moral authority as the dominant metaphor for how human relationships should work." (Guardian) When we look at Seberg's life generally, and more specifically around the late sixties, we might wish to say that she lacked boundaries. Yet this seems too inadequate a word to describe so tempestuous a cross-current of feeling. It suggests perhaps that we have the word not to control our world but that the word exemplifies how controlled many are about their world.
Now when we are talking about Jean Seberg's life we have to accept that some things are undeniable facts and others rumours with varying degrees of substantiation. She was definitely married to the much older Romaine Gary, and undeniably gave birth to a child in 1970 that was not his: Seberg declared the child to be Navarras's after rumours proposing that she was carrying the baby of a Black Panther, and her two-day-old daughter was buried in an open casket so nobody could doubt the child was not black. The rumour was started by the FBI, who wanted to smear Seberg for her engagement with the movement. Our purpose isn't to separate fact from fiction but to accept their conflation, while acknowledging that in doing so everything we have to say takes on an element of the speculative. What we are interested in is the persona of Jean Seberg, one that incorporates facts (her documented life), rumour (the stories surrounding those facts) and fiction - the films in which she appeared.
An actor by their very existence occupies a place that questions boundaries, and we can quote some conservative claims made by actors. This might make them very competent professionals but they may have evaded some of the most pressing conundrums of the work and perhaps nobody more so than an actress who some believe has transformed contemporary screening acting. In contrast to the Method and more immersive approaches to the craft, Meryl Streep "rejected the teachers she had at Yale who wanted her to delve into her personal life for a role. It is Streep's rejection", Dan Callahan says, "of this orthodoxy that is the secret dramatic happening that explains the change that occurs as this book goes on." (The Art of Screen Acting: 1960 to Today) It is maybe this rejection that means the tragic star is no longer so likely, while there was a period in film history where various stars became figures of tragedy in a troublesome combination of personal life and professional persona, in living a convoluted existence that would feed into the roles and roles that would feed into the life. Perhaps the two most famous would be Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe, but no actor combined the elements for tragic stardom more than Jean Seberg. We might propose there are at least six: a modest background; a youthful start; forceful partners, infidelities, political involvement, and an iconic image. Though many an article on tragic stardom forgets to include Seberg as they focus on anyone from Jean Harlow, Brandon Lee, River Phoenix and Sharon Tate, to Rock Hudson, Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffmann and John Belushi, if we are right to see at least six features of a tragic star, nobody meets all the criteria better than Seberg.
We don't want to reduce this article to an examination of Seberg's personal life. What matters is to incorporate life, work and society, to try to understand Seberg as an actress, and a tragic life as a form, and this is where our suggested criteria can usefully be accompanied by Aristotle's. Here he proposes a character must be good; secondly appropriate, thirdly, life-like, and finally consistent. By appropriate, Aristotle means that a man should be manly and a woman feminine, and reckons "it is not appropriate for a woman to be so manly or clever." When he says life-like he also acknowledges that this doesn't mean they are the same as everybody else; more that they are finer versions of the average. They may be "...angry, lazy or have other such traits", but these should be contained by a general notion of their goodness. When Aristotle speaks of consistency he accepts too that a character may be consistently inconsistent. If one feels that somebody is unreliable, but there are good reasons for that unreliability, the viewer is more inclined to be accepting of that trait if alongside it we believe in a basic decency of character. It is why Aristotle can talk about a flaw in character rather than a flawed character, someone who makes an error in judgement rather than who is fundamentally villainous. One who doesn't listen to good advice is flawed; someone who knows what they are doing is wrong and goes ahead and does it anyway is a bad person. We needn't simplify human beings here; only to understand an aspect of dramatic character: that if Oedipus actively chose to kill his father and sleep with his mother because he didn't care, that would make him villainous rather than bad. Even Medea is flawed rather than evil because it is her excessive love for Jason rather than the desire to murder her children that motivates her actions. When "Aristotle introduced the term casually in the Poetics in describing the tragic hero as a man of noble rank and nature whose misfortune is not brought about by villainy but by some "error of judgment" (hamartia) (Encyclopedia Brittanica), he made much of this erring. We might find it absurd that killing your father, sleeping with your mother and murdering your children can be seen as errors of judgement. But if we accept the idea within the context of behaviour that is out of character rather than consistent with it, we can understand even the most apparently heinous acts as flaws.
Seberg was a flawed character within a very different world from the one Oedipus and Medea lived in, but if we keep in mind the notion of the good as the characterisational baseline that allows for failings within sympathy, Seberg is perhaps as significant a figure as we can find. Someone like Audrey Hepburn's goodness both in film and in life wouldn't allow for a tragic figure, and instead, she works as an exemplary one. This doesn't mean Hepburn didn't have a difficult life, with infidelities, miscarriages and doomed love affairs, according to Harpers Bazaar, who noted, "While married to [Mel] Ferrer, Hepburn had a few dalliances, but it was no secret that Ferrer did as well. Their infidelities damaged their relationship..." Yet her life and career weren't synonymous with unhappiness. Seberg's clearly was, and nothing captures that despair better than our brief introduction, which conveys how much chaos there happened to be.
But let's leave aside the life for the moment and look at some of Seberg's earlier work, and three films made between 1960 and 1964 A Bout de souffle, Five Day Lover, In the French Style. It is Godard's film that turned her into an icon, taking the haircut she displayed in Bonjour Tristesse, which was a variation on the cropped look she had in Saint Joan, and allowing it to become a modern style option. As Pamela Hutchinson says, "we don't use the phrase style icon lightly, but Jean Seberg surely qualifies. If you see a woman rocking a pixie crop on the street today, the chances are she came under the influence of the Seberg effect before she stepped into the hairdresser's chair." (Guardian) In A bout de souffle Seberg plays an American woman in Paris whose purpose is to be neglected and in turn resentful. Whether she is waiting for the central character Michel as he goes off looking for a car to steal, or waits in the passenger seat as he exits a taxi, Patricia is a memorable presence without being a memorable character. She only becomes significant as she betrays Michel to the police. The betrayal will lead to Michel's death but maybe all Patricia wants to do so is end this affair with an insufferable egoist.
We might wonder if the same logic is at work in In the French Style. As in A Bout de souffle there is a key scene at an airport but rather than Jean-Pierre Melville playing an egotistical French writer interviewed by Patricia, here it is a man with whom Christina is in love: Walter (Stanley Baker), an international journalist who tells her how he lives for his work and loves who he can when he is on his numerous travels. She takes it well but with an understandably heavy heart and the film ends with Walter returning to France expecting to pick up the affair but Christina has moved on: she is now with a sensitive and considerate American surgeon and plans to move back to the States with him. At the film's conclusion, she explains to Walter why she won't leave with him after he says would you like to get up from this table and walk out of this restaurant with him. She says yes, but adds that she doesn't live for tonight anymore, and that in five years she would probably hate Walter or would have forgotten him, while with this doctor, "a good, gentle responsible man", and a man who in five years she believes she won't be able to live without. We can see that she reckons the doctor won't be neglectful, and while some might see in the film a conservative message about a woman settling and settling for less, this isn't quite how the film presents it or how Christina offers it. Her tone is wistful rather than resentful: she holds no grudge against Walter and would seem to view him as just part of a life she has been leading that hasn't quite been wasteful, but one that would become so if she continued living it on the terms she has lived it thus far. With Walter, she would be waiting as we have seen her wait for Michel in A bout de souffle. In Godard's film we see her looking at her watch as she sits in a cafe; with Walter, this could go on for years. Walter will probably see that she has betrayed him, a delusion of course but one the film entertains enough for Walter to get a scene showing how angry he is with her. But perhaps betrayal is necessary, a means to escape a love that is strong but useless.
In different ways, both Breathless and In the French Style, avoid the tragic; that here are two women who if they couldn't have escaped their love for a feckless man in the first instance and a driven narcissist in the second, could have been destroyed. In the lighter Five Day Lover, she has a settled home life but takes the lover of the title before deciding to give up her affair and return to her loyal, oblivious, yet wise husband. At the very end of the film though it looks like she might embark on further adventures, or at the very least wistfully consider doing so. She is again not a tragic figure and shows a woman in control of her emotions and thus in control of her life.
It is as though a number of these films serve as cautionary tales for an actress who wasn't always able to apply the same level of assertiveness in her own existence. Speaking at a screening at the MacMahon in Paris, in 2015, her Bonjour Tristesse co-star, Mylne Demongeot, said: "Otto [Preminger] had high hopes in Jean and Saint Joan's failure took a toll on him also because there was a 5-films-contract from what I recall. She [Seberg] was extremely sad too about it and when we all arrived on the set of Bonjour Tristesse she carried on her shoulders the weight of guilt, she was scared." Instead of seeing Preminger as the monster who really did allow her to burn at the stake in her first film Saint Joan, she was grateful that Preminger was still determined to help make her a star after that initial film's failure. Susan King comments, "Seberg suffered from Preminger's tyrannical direction and received actual burns during Joan's death scene on the stake and had to be rescued." (Los Angeles Times) Seberg was chosen by the director out of many other unknowns, a small-town girl from Iowa, one out of 18,000 applicants. That is likely to create the sort of heat matched by the fires that were to burn Joan of Arc, but Seberg didn't expect it to be literal and would have been entitled to regard herself as doing the director more than a favour after agreeing to appear in a film that he was once again directing.
When we look at the films Seberg made in the early sixties, there does seem an aspect of this assertiveness in the film roles she took on, as though seeing in Europe a sense of self she could call her own after the apprenticeship that was clearly at the behest of Preminger. However, when looking at the films she went on to make for the men in her life (and these men were European), they lack the quality, nuance and sensitivity to be found in work by Godard, Robert Parrish, Philippe De Broca and others she worked with in France. And we can hardly praise Europe and condemn the US when many agree one of her greatest performances was in Lilith, playing the fractured, artistic patient in a mental institution. In the European films she appeared in by her husbands, Romain Gary, especially, but her first spouse, Dennis Berry, and also her third, Franois Moreuil, the consensus is that these were mediocre works. In his brilliant film From the Journals of Jean Seberg, Mark Rappaport makes much of Gary's Birds of Peru, wondering what happens in a marriage and offers Gary's debut with Seberg as a comment on its perversity. In the film, Seberg is a nymphomaniac whose husband orders the chauffeur to kill her if she has another bout of the illness, with Rappaport commenting on the age gap between Seberg and her husband, played by Pierre Brasseur, just as he notes that the age gap is there again in Gary's follow-up Kill, Kill, Kill, Kill, with James Mason taking the older-man role. While in the first she is a nympho who can't achieve orgasm, in Kill, Kill, Kill, Kill, she is caught in a complicated story of double cross when she falls for a thuggish killing machine Brad Killian (Stephen Boyd) who turns out to be a former cop whose daughter died from a heroin overdose. Her husband is not a good guy either. He has been pocketing money from heroin dealing recently, and Killian turns out to be a nice guy in his way: he just wants to slaughter as many people involved in the drug trade as he can. He is almost sentimental. You're my kind of bitch. Very much so he tells Seberg's character. I really better go now because I don't think I'll ever hear anything nicer from you," Seberg replies. She does get to do a bit of killing herself by the end but here she isn't even love interest - Killian would have to be a bit more interested in her for that.
European cinema wasn't necessarily the answer but perhaps a certain amount of freedom from controlling men she felt obliged towards was. In Gary's films, these were stories that needn't have demanded very much from Seberg, and perhaps she appeared in them to support her husband's work rather than as interesting acting projects. She is more abused and abandoned than loved, perhaps the ultimate insult in a period in American cinema when good parts were so hard to find that Molly Haskell ended up writing a book with the title From Reverence to Rape. When speaking of Seberg, she mentions Godard and how Seberg "becomes the perfect expression and focus of Godard's ambivalence towards women." She doesn't mention Gary's films, but that ambivalence doesn't seem to have gone away and women's roles in cinema according to Haskell became more and more limiting. "From a woman's point of view, the ten years from, say 1962 or 1963 to 1973 have been the most disheartening in screen history." Her work with Gary would seem to confirm this. If the roles weren't demanding, there may have been something taxing about working with a husband in parts that were close to abusive in films that passed off as exploitation cinema.
During these disheartening years, nevertheless it wasn't impossible to become a female star, and Jane Fonda shared a few similarities with Seberg without at all becoming a tragic figure. She also worked in France in the early sixties, married a French filmmaker and was exploited by Roger Vadim at the same time some would see that Seberg was being exploited by (the Lithuanian-born) Gary. They were also vilified around the same period for their political beliefs, with Fonda famously becoming known as Hanoi Jane. But though Dan Callahan rather cruelly quotes someone saying Fonda had "everything lifted except her self-esteem", Fonda managed to move from one persona to another, gathering the heat of publicity without quite suffering the furnaces of despair. Fonda often managed to turn a negative image into a positive one over time: her anti-Vietnam stance became a complex account of a wife's feelings in Coming Home. The Barbarella sexism became more than a decade later the triumphal anti-sexism of 9-5. Fonda managed to find for herself roles in life that were varied enough for the tragic to be replaced by the protean, as she went on a famous health kick in the early eighties at a time when Seberg was several years dead, after a demise as tragic as any. "In 1978 the circumstances of Jean Seberg's death 40 years ago in late August 1979 were squalid and pathetic." Geoffrey Macnab notes. "The American star's body lay decomposing in a car on a street in Paris for 10 days before the French police discovered it. There was a bottle of barbiturates and a suicide note beside the corpse. As the press reported, her body had "baked in the sun" and the odour was "unimaginably foul" (Independent). Seberg was only forty.
We should now return to the six aspects that we see going into making a tragic star, and also discuss briefly Aristotle's four key elements of tragedy. First, the modest background. At a time now when so many stars are nepobabies, with children of stars themselves becoming famous, it is useful to look back on actors who came from backgrounds that had no links to showbusiness, and whose families were often working class. A child of a lawyer or a financier might have few if any links with the world of fame but they will at least be associated with money. Seberg's background wasn't as impoverished as Marilyn Monroe, who was brought up an orphan (albeit in the movie capital LA), but it was antithetical to Hollywood. Her father was a pharmacist in a town of no more than 27,000 people, in Iowa, and she said "I never knew until I came here to Hollywood that somebody could be really nice to you for years and really hate your guts. Happens all the time here." (Screenwriting from Iowa) Monroe would probably have known that straight away, but it wasn't so much that Seberg was a slow learner; it was just an unfamiliar milieu.
Then there was the youthful start. When she was cast in late 1956 for Saint Joan, she was a teenager with almost no acting experience, only a season of summer theatre. During casting, Preminger "... explained to newspapermen before the auditions began, girls without any acting experience had little chance of being able to play Joan of Arc. It was a point not appreciated by some of the 60,000 aspirants who wrote each week in America, and who trusted to their good looks..." (Guardian) But that is exactly who he chose, leaving Seberg with no craft to fall back on or a milieu she knew well to rely upon. It left her vulnerable for years, and perhaps she never quite recovered from that initial position of in-assertiveness. When she died, her suicide note said: "I can't live any longer with my nerves." (The New York Times)
Instead of finding a way to assert herself, or at least to escape the influence of Preminger, Seberg married young and then married again before she was twenty-five. This second marriage was to Gary, a man twice her age and with the sort of life experiences Seberg may have admired. In his memoir, published in 1961, the year before he married Seberg, he would speak about his nose reconstructed after a WWII flying accident, the bottle of whisky a night he would drink during the conflict, while in Britain, and near the end of the book speaks of Time as though he didn't have that much of it left. "Life is young. As it grows older, it becomes merely duration. It becomes Time, it says good-by. It has taken everything from you and has nothing left to give." He ends the memoir, "I have lived." (Promise at Dawn) He was a man of maturity and experience, an insider who knew people in politics and showbusiness, and soon enough Seberg was dining with the Kennedys, while Gary "counted Jean-Paul Sartre and Charles de Gaulle as fans." (BBC) Other stars have famously married into a life that has given their life gravitas, albeit taking different forms, including Monroe's marriage to Arthur Miller and Grace Kelly's to the Prince of Monaco. But there was less than ten years between them and their husbands.
That covers the forceful older figure, but what of infidelities, what Paul Theroux called "the thundering herd of Seberg's lovers?" (New York Times) It wasn't just the occasional dalliance: Seberg could fall in love deeply and affect others profoundly, and we noted the affairs with Eastwood and Fuentes. Fuentes wrote a novel about her Diana, The Goddess Who Hunts Alone, and notes at one moment in their affair while he is reading a book she has put a signed photograph of Eastwood next to the bed. The all but indifferent Eastwood gives her a photo with a signature; Fuentes twenty-five years later writes a memoir of their time together. If the affair was important for Seberg but less so for Clint, then the affair with Fuentes was much more important to him than it was for the actress, with Theroux cruelly proposing that, in his two-month affair with Seberg, Fuentes was "lost in the shuffle." Fuentes must have felt very superfluous indeed when, while in Seberg's bed, he was not the one next to the side lamp.
If Seberg's early marriages suggested an insecurity that insisted someone ought to look after her, those affairs in her early thirties might indicate someone who was looking for revenge or for an escape, or perhaps something in between, While Seberg's marriage with `Gary may have been unhappy, she was unlikely to alleviate that unhappiness with half a dozen lovers within a year. One needn't be a moralist to fret over what that might have been doing to her mental health, even if one may seem a hypocrite when fretting less over Eastwood's constant dalliances. However, this is less our hypocrisy than that of the times, or more specifically the Los Angeles Times, who published a story the FBI knew would create an outcry. The paper announced a thinly veiled actress was going to give birth to a Black Panther's child; a similar item appeared in Newsweek, this time naming Seberg. "Fifty years ago, a senior editor at the Los Angeles Times came into possession of a dangerous piece of gossip, leaked to the paper by the FBI. The Times printed it without fact-checking it, and the life of a famous young actress was destroyed" (Los Angeles Times) Nicholas Goldberg offered in a mea culpa many years afterwards. Eastwood on the other hand, in the early seventies, "was unquestionably the biggest movie star in the world, as well as Hollywood's biggest love cheat. In the intervening years, there had been affairs with practically all of his leading ladies." (Irish Independent) It is what men did, and no need for a scandal to ensue when instead a rumour mill could produce the energy required for superstardom. Two people could have an equally mutually, sexually enhancing encounter and yet the man was a stud and a woman a slut, a play on four-letter words that have been used often enough to show the double standards of Hollywood and elsewhere. But while Eastwood as a stud could in 1979 be one of the world's biggest box-office stars, his co-star and lover from a decade earlier was a slut lying dead and ignored in a car.
Then there was the political involvement. Seberg wasn't targeted arbitrarily: she was actively involved in Black Power politics and no celebrity suffered the consequences of her engagement more than Seberg. Rappaport puts it succinctly when contrasting her political interests with Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. Mary Beth Hurt, playing Seberg, says, "Jane was the Vietnam War, Vanessa was the PLO, and I was the Black Panthers." But while Fonda and Redgrave were no less vilified, Seberg says they had the advantage of famous thespian families; she was a girl with a drug-store dad. It was also easier to smear her sexually, with Fonda and Redgrave showing concern for the Vietnamese and Palestinians but not sleeping with them. Seberg was literally sleeping with the enemy at a time when the Panther movement was, according to J. Edgar Hoover, the "greatest internal threat to the nation." (NPR) Other stars have dallied with politics or had dalliances with politicians, with much made of Marilyn Monroe's fling with JFK in Joyce Carol Oates' Blonde, and Jane Fonda of course married the radical Tom Hayden, who went on to become a senator. But the Seberg scandal was deeper and more provocative, and the consequences graver. She miscarried before the child was born, and Gary claimed she never recovered. The New York Times reported Gary saying she would try and take her life each year, at the date of the baby's death.
Finally, we have the iconic image. Not all haircuts are first filmically famous but cinema has created images that become synonymous with a particular cut, colour, or style. Louise Brooks' bob; Veronica Lake's Peek a-boo; Famke Potente's red hair was popular after Run Lola Run, blue became the new red after Blue is the Warmest Colour, and we have noted Hutchinson comment on the pixie look that is indebted to Seberg. Seberg walking down the Champs Elysees selling the New York Herald and Tribune is probably the most famous moment in a Godard film and we might say that Seberg owns this moment as Anna Karina doesn't in her Godard films, nor Fonda in the film she made for the director, Tout va bien. Karina in Vivre sa vie was moulded out of Louise Brooks and more generally by Godard. She had no image she could bring to Godard's work, while the image Fonda brought to Godard's film was already more significantly there in Klute. Seberg may have been bullied in Preminger's work but her appearances in Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse gave her an image she could take into Godard's and call her own. Nobody is likely to credit Seberg's look chiefly with either director even if it was in Preminger's films that she first adopted the pixie crop and in Godard's work it became iconic. But this is an image that is hers and gives her a status that wouldn't have made her a style icon without it.
There was a moment in Seberg's work between 1959 with Bonjour Tristesse and Lilith in 1964 where Seberg was both an actress and a star, but one of the difficulties sometimes in talking about actors as opposed to directors is that their status is so clearly associated with their image, and part of that image is influenced by their lives and the publicity surrounding it. Yet what we might notice in most of the films during this short period is that she plays characters who have some say in their lives, who make decisions that indicate if not control at least choice. She chooses to betray Michel in A bout de souffle; she chooses to stay with the doctor rather than go off again with Walter in In the French Style, and chooses to return to her husband in Five Day Lover, while considering other options as she wanders the streets to the film's conclusion. In Bonjour tristesse she may act badly as she is responsible for the death of her father's lover, but this is still empowering however perverse. In Lilith, Seberg says of her mad desires in the film: "It's the Blanche du Bois syndrome...I'll never have a pen, I'll never have sword but I do have a vagina." This is Rappaport putting words into Seberg's mouth (via Mary Beth Hurt), and the tone of Rappaport's film is cynical and cutting, but Lilith was a complex role and the Journals... says it was the "most gratifying work experience...the most challenging role I ever had."
If we have now noted the key elements that go into being a tragic star, and that Seberg more than most exemplified them, then what about Aristotle's four proposals for tragedy? Was Seberg good? Watching the interview from the early sixties where she talks about living in Paris, she seems modest, decent, self-aware, eager to learn and respectful to the concierge, whose job she plays up rather than plays down. Here is a woman in her early twenties who could be a decade older not in her looks but in her demeanour. She has poise and purpose: a woman who wants to become a better actress and is willing to put the work in. There are many stars who are difficult and demanding, tetchy or tantalising, and why not, we might say, seeing it as the prerogative of stardom or the consequences of too many people intruding in one's life? But they may no longer be deemed good, and Seberg does indeed fulfil this criteria.
Aristotle then insists a character must be appropriate as he notes that men should act masculine and women feminine. Some might argue that Seberg's hair-do was a man's cut rather than a woman's; that it gave her an androgynous quality, and others would very understandably see Aristotle's claim as hardly analytic; more prejudicial. But even on Aristotle's terms, Seberg seemed appropriate, with the short hair by the time of A bout de souffle underpinning Seberg's femininity rather than undermining it. The look allowed her pert, fresh features to become prominent and instead of making her look manly, it extended the possibilities of femininity. It opened up the idea of appropriateness in gender. Aristotle also sees the appropriate that isn't exceptional but chiefly a heightened form of the normal. This might seem contrary to the fact that in most classic tragedies characters are from noble birth, but that needn't mean they don't have concerns pertinent to everyone. The characters are often caught in family dilemmas but the families are powerful so that the concerns have greater consequence. Seberg wasn't exceptional in losing a child, even if only about O.5 per cent lose their baby after 16 weeks. But the circumstances were exceptional as Seberg lost her two days after she was born, and in circumstances that became horribly public. Many people who may not have identified with her politics must have found it hard not to sympathise with her tragedy.
Aristotle also talks of consistency, yet accepts that a person can be consistently inconsistent. While stories of earlier Seberg films show an actress always reliable and willing to give the director what they wish, even as most onlookers would see a sadist rather than a perfectionist at work, evident in the numerous anecdotes about Seberg in Saint Joan and Bonjour tristesse, late in her career she could hardly be relied upon at all. Making his first feature The Big Delirium, Berry "all through pre-production... was never sure if she would be fit to act in it or not. In the end she did pull herself together sufficiently to take part but the film was a strain to make and did poorly at the box office when it was released." (Simon-Hitchman.com) But this is unlikely to make Seberg any the less tragic, especially when we might see that the loss of her child and the FBI harassment would make anyone fragile. "One friend described her as "the most anguished person I've ever met," Hitchman notes, and he speaks of a night when she was in her apartment talking to Garrel, and when the filmmaker insisted on leaving after Seberg said he should stay for one more drink, "he began to leave anyway, at which point she smashed her glass and slit her wrists. Garrel wrapped an improvised tourniquet around her wrists as she cried." (Simon Hitchman.com) If Seberg wasn't very consistent there were good reasons for it, and many commentators agree that the FBI harassment contributed to her despair.
Such a claim allows us to understand the fourth element of tragedy. What was Seberg's fatal flaw, what might we find in her youth, perhaps, that would lead to her demise? Many would note Seberg's sensitivity and emotional seriousness. "Jean had a very strong idealistic streak," a school friend noted. "Joining the NAACP (The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) was just another instance of her being different. She probably didn't understand the philosophy behind it, but she certainly loved every little living creature." (SimonHitchman.com) This might be a problem in an industry predicated less on the star loving every creature but not in one where every creature is expected to love the star. If Hollywood insists one should be wary of working with children and animals, worse still will be loving them all. But in such an environment a caring soul can look like a reckless one, and while Hollywood often tolerates, even expects, stars to involve themselves in good causes, those shouldn't include storing guns in your house for a revolutionary movement that many believed wanted to destabilise the United States. In this sense, not only would Seberg have been persona no grata for sleeping with the enemy; this was also the enemy within. Fonda was supporting a country thousands of miles away, and Redgrave likewise. Seberg was siding with what the FBI believed was the greatest of internal threats.
Whatever one thinks of The Black Panther's claims, however much one might believe with Seberg that black America was oppressed long after slavery, we may still wish to argue, from the perspective of the tragic heroine, that her love for the maltreated was a failure of judgement, thus a flaw, and hence a proper dimension of the tragic. Vital to many a tragedy is this question of judgement, of whom one should trust. Othello takes too seriously the comments of Iago, King Lear reckons his two treacherous daughters are more reliable than Cordelia; Oedipus ignores the advice of Tiresias. Judgements matter in tragedy and often characters possess flaws that set in motion a story that another character would be able to mitigate. Though commentators like Raymond Williams play down character and see that what matters more is events, we might nevertheless claim the flaw is still character-specific: that a flaw is an individual thing that can set this play in motion but not another. Williams says the point is a "change of fortune', not the 'change in the hero's fortune'. He reckons that "what we find in the new emphasis is an increasingly isolated interpretation of the character of the hero: the error is moral, a weakness in an otherwise good man..." (Modern Tragedy) Williams is right to see that the contemporary emphasis is on the psychological and individual nature of tragedy, but while this might be pertinent to the modern, it endangers misinterpreting the Ancient. It is as though the tragic has been trying to recuperate the individual within the fatalistic since Schelling, with Peter Szondi noting that while for many centuries we had a poetics of tragedy, we didn't have a theory of tragedy. Schelling notes that there is both fate and the individual, and while the circumstances insist fate wins out, the individual refuses to accept it, and Schelling sees a "conflict of human freedom with the power of the objective world." (An Essay on the Tragic)
If we see Seberg as a tragic heroine, this isn't to say she is an ancient heroine, even if we can find echoes of Greek and Shakespearian tragedy in her life. She may not have killed her daughter as Medea killed her sons, but there is something of the primal power of tragedy in Seberg's daughter's death. She overdosed on sleeping pills during the pregnancy and the baby's demise was linked to this overdose, which in turn would have been associated with the FBI's involvement in undermining Seberg. The baby buried in an open casket to prove it wasn't black, again suggests the importance of the community on the individual, the idea that reputation matters and while Seberg wasn't royalty she functioned as many stars do as a variation of it. Stars represent the moral zeitgeist and Seberg was expected to prove herself by having a child who wasn't black. The implications of this would be for another piece, but that the child was Mexican and a product of adultery seemed relatively irrelevant, and we might assume that what mattered was that Seberg disproved rumours that would have wider political implications. Giving birth to the child of a 'terrorist' is quite different from a student revolutionary from another country. These are the sort of intricate concerns of a kingdom that emphasises not the personal conduct of an individual but the demands of the wider community. Seberg's purpose was surely to show not that she was a racist (by denying she was giving birth to a black child) but that she wasn't a traitor. Things were more complicated than that of course, and the most important aspect for Seberg was that she proved wrong people who were making things up as she sued a magazine after its erroneous claims. She may have written to Huey Newton, the leader of the Black Panthers, withdrawing her support but she then wrote a second letter to the Reverend Jesse Jackson in which she pledged half of any winnings from her Newsweek libel case to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference." (SimonHitchman.com)
Our purpose has been to explore Seberg as the ultimate tragic star, a tabloid phrase that can be given at least a modicum of theoretical bolstering by looking specifically at the components of a tragic existence, and by looking too at key aspects of tragedy defined by Aristotle. But we also see in the work from the early sixties an escape from the tragedy of her life into the possibilities of film fiction. Her first film may have been an update of tragedy, her Joan of Arc burnt at the stake for the beliefs she held, but while this role might usefully epitomise her life, it wouldn't capture the complexity or the freedom within it. Looking at A bout de souffle, Five Day Lover, In the French Style, Lilith and a couple of others would allow for such an exploration, even if this piece has chiefly been to explore the notion of a tragic heroine as a phenomenon beyond the films and terribly important to the life.
© Tony McKibbin