Jean Seberg Talks Breathless--Back in 1968

by Harry Clein
May 28, 2010 8:30 AM
4 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood
Back in 1968, veteran Hollywood publicist Harry Clein recalls, he visited the set of big-budget musical Paint Your Wagon to interview young actress Jean Seberg (star of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, which is being reissued). A transcript follows, including a visit from her co-stars, Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood (with whom Seberg denied having an affair).

As the Summer of Protest rocked the Chicago Democratic Convention and feminists stormed the Miss America Pageant, I was in Baker, Oregon reporting on the big-budget musical Paint Your Wagon as a leg man for Los Angeles Times columnist Joyce Haber. Like Jane Fonda, Seberg was on J. Edgar Hoover's subversives list, due to her involvement with the Black Panthers. After I left Haber in the spring of 1969, Haber ran a destructive blind item that ruined Seberg's life: The blond and beautiful "Miss A," she wrote, was pregnant by "a prominent Black Panther." At the funeral for her stillborn daughter, Seberg displayed the white baby in a glass coffin; her husband Romain Gary claimed the baby as his. After that, the fragile actress repeatedly tried to commit suicide, often on the anniversary of the baby's birth. In 1979, at age 40, she was found dead of a prescription overdose in the back seat of her car in Paris, holding a suicide note.

Thompson on Hollywood
But that dusty August day back in 1968, I was just a callow young man infatuated with the beautiful, sexy and worldly star of Breathless, who although she was my age, had already played opposite Belmondo, Beatty and Connery. Munching two green apples for lunch, Jean, in blue jeans and a red shirt, sat on the stairs to her trailer and harmonized on “My Funny Valentine” with a couple of hippie extras strumming a guitar and rubbing a washboard.

Jean Seberg: They come over for an occasional shower. I’d never deny that to any hippie. I do see a healthy movement among the scruffy young in the sense it is the first generation whose values aren’t material. But the whole drug scene is a drag. It’s a cop out. I’d rather see a friend run down by a car than on drugs like heroin or speed.”

Harry Clein: Breathless put you at the center of the French New Wave. Were you surprised?

JS: I was out of work and needed the money. The producer asked Columbia, which then owned my old Preminger contract, if I was available. He gave Columbia a choice of $12,000 or 50% of the world profits. With great foresight, Columbia took the $12,000. It was shot for $76,000 in five weeks. Most of the time we worked half days. We’d break and sit around in cafes. One day the producer saw us, it was his last card, and he got into a fistfight with Godard because we weren’t working.

HC: Why did the French fall in love with you?

JS: I know they loved the short hair. It was very daring then because of the concentration camp memories. Maybe they were happy because I married a French man [Romain Gary]. I’m just happy people think of me at all. I’m just happy to get jobs.

HC: What was it like making Saint Joan after winning the big talent contest?

JS: I didn’t do it. Some pimply-faced kid from Iowa did it.

HC: Are you still in touch with Otto Preminger, who discovered you?

JS: We nod across crowded commissaries.

HC: You also made Bonjour Tristesse with him. Was that a better experience?

JS: I was in it, but I was all tied up with that dashing young playboy [Francois Moreuil] who dashed away. I would have broken your heart. I was a pathetic soul. Everyone disapproved. Which naturally pushed me on. He was a good friend when I didn’t have good friends. He’s a very nice man, and when we were married, he was a very nice boy. I was a crazy girl. It was really a baby marriage, not even a childhood marriage. He did a foolish thing. He wanted to meet Romain Gary, the French Consul General in Los Angeles. We made a call on him with the beautiful eyes, who became the father of my son (Diego).

Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood came over as junket reporters from Oakland and Charlotte trailed after them. Eastwood’s vocabulary to the press in those days consisted of pleasant hellos, yeahs and nos, and there was absolutely no indication he would become a two-time Oscar-winning director. Marvin and Eastwood had flown down the night before to Los Angeles for a party honoring Toshiro Mifune who had made Hell in the Pacific with Marvin.

Lee Marvin: You and Claudia Cardinale are Mifune’s favorite actresses!

JS: Toshiro Mifune likes me! If he comes up, I’ll bake him a Japanese pie. What was I doing here in Baker? I wish I had gone with you.

LM (playfully): “No. You couldn’t have. I paid for the plane.

JS (haughtily): That proves you’re not a star.

LM: I don’t have to take that from a runway starlet.

My Baker interview ended when the six actresses who played French whores made a sensational helicopter landing on the set. The hormone-stoked male crew and cast cheered as the voluptuous women stepped out onto the Oregon dust in their high boots and their lavender, orange and yellow micro-dresses.

JS: It looks like Raquel Welch hitting Viet Nam!

My interview continued on Election Day, November 5, 1968 at Jean’s rented pink California colonial house on Coldwater Canyon. By the backyard pool, Jean was barefoot, wearing a floppy gray hat, jeans and a red gingham shirt tied at the waist. But she was not as fancy-free as she had been on set. A darker more reflective mood had set in.

JS: Bobby Kennedy is the guy I’ll be thinking about most today. I found him very candid and, surprisingly, he didn’t think he had a hope in hell of getting the nomination in Chicago because of the Johnson-Humphrey machine. Politically, as they say on television, there’s a breakdown in communications between the electorate and the candidates. But this is still the country where people live the best, despite the gaping flaws. I’ve friends who live all over. But after they leave America, they realize it. They come back.

HC: Didn’t you go to a White House dinner when John Kennedy was president?

JS: Kennedy was a pragmatist. We can only speculate, but I think he would have seen earlier that there would be no military conclusion to the war. That would have saved the maimed and killed on both sides. My God, on television each night the body counts are like racking up scores for either side.

HC: Despite the problems on Paint Your Wagon, how do you feel about it?

JS: I’ve finished all my work. Lee and Clint took me out to lunch the other day. I was sobbing. It was kind of like leaving summer camp. I was a basket case. I had freedom by the end of the picture. Lee is hard to work with. He plays broad, but it doesn’t look that way on the screen. Working with Lee is like being in the Army for four years. He enriches your vocabulary so much. It’s turned into such a big picture. When the weather was bad in Oregon, there was the rumor Paramount was negotiating to buy God.

HC: Any other films on the horizon?

JS: I’ve a second commitment to Paramount. Jim Brown has asked me to do Lions Three, Christians Nothing (a love story about a black NFL quarterback and a white actress). But I’ve got to have a big powwow with him about it. It could say good things, but it’s a firecracker. There are strong truths in it that I’d hate to see sensationalized. I had a talk with Sammy Davis. We agreed it would be ten years before the right story of an interracial romance could be told as it is. The point being that when people are in love they are color-blind. But we’re so hung up on the black-white sexual obsession.

HC: Is Romain coming to Los Angeles while you’re here?

JS: Romain’s film Birds in Peru opens soon in New York. It’s breaking records in Paris. I hope it does well here. It’s about non-compassionate love. It's a ritualistic dance of fate of a frigid woman who seeks a man who will be the key to awakening her. She has periodic crises of nymphomania. She has a pact with her husband that if her nymphomania happens again, to kill her. It may be shocking to some people. Romain's work is very impressive. I was terrified working with him. I wanted him to do it with someone else. But he turned out to be more visual than I expected. He is a very sensitive director. I hope to work with him again.

HC: What is the state of your marriage?

JS: We reached an ideal with what marriage should be. But the pressures of our careers kept us from it. We remain the closest of friends. Loving friends. The three month period he was in Majorca and I was in Baker was a trial separation. He's basically a loner. We can accept our relationship on every level but the marriage level. The marriage was over when I spoke to you in Baker...The French have a nice way of putting things. Whenever a man presents his woman, he refers to her as ma femme. It’s the same word for both mistress and wife. The French also say ‘never apologize, never explain.’ The French say an awful lot of dumb things...The superb thing about Romain was that he created this Frankenstein. He pushed me to develop my own tastes. This inevitably created conflict. I have this character flaw. I’m a ship without a rudder if there’s not a man there. It’s my nature to mold myself around a man.

HC: Have you ever thought of moving to Los Angeles?

JS: Only when I am very tired like right now, I say ‘why go, why not stay?' This town… Los Angeles, Hollywood… I find beautiful. I’m overawed by the variety of plants and flowers. But I find the total preoccupation with the industry to be a drag. Since my son is raised as a European, I’ll spend time there. I made a oath to Romain that Diego would be raised in Europe. I feel as if I’m a cork in the middle of the Atlantic. When I come back here, I realize I’m so American. To the French, I am a French actress. But my roots are here in America. Even if I wanted to think they aren’t, they are very much so. Do you know the old story about the chameleon? Put the chameleon on green, he turns green; put him on black, he turns black; put him on red and he turns red. Place the chameleon on plaid, and he explodes.

HC: What’s next?

JS: This is a paid advertisement. Any man who sends me flowers every day can have me. No diamonds, no jets, no Bentleys. Also I am hooked on good manners. I don’t mean opening car door good manners, I mean opening of hearts good manners. But I’ve learned a little on the way. I’m a lot less selfish, more giving. And if he’s someone who wants children, I’m now prepared to have piles of them. Maybe it’s a biological thing. Maybe the career just means less at a time when it should mean more. That, too, is a paid advertisement.

The next time – and unfortunately last time – I saw Jean Seberg I took her a single white rose.

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4 Comments

  • Los angeles town car | June 8, 2010 6:11 AMReply

    Great interview!

  • brian | May 29, 2010 2:31 AMReply

    as Woody put it so well in Deconstruting Harry, there's a special floor in hell, reserved for the press, and he could've been thinking of joyce haber

  • Cotty Chubb | May 29, 2010 2:16 AMReply

    Heart-breaking, inspiring, beautiful.
    What beautiful thoughts and words.

    I echo Carrie Rickey.

  • Carrie Rickey | May 29, 2010 1:02 AMReply

    Oh Anne, Oh Harry, many thanks for this.

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