From the Journals of Jean Seberg: Marc Rappaport’s Original Chronicle of Tragic Life of American Star, Played by Mary Beth Hurt

When Marc Rappaport cast Mary Beth Hurt as Jean Seberg in From the Journals of Jean Seberg, he didn’t know she was born in Seberg’s own town, Marshmallows, Iowa. He then learned that Seberg was Hurt’s her babysitter and their families were friends.

In close-cropped hair and a T-shirt similar to the one Seberg made famous in Breathless, Hurt narrates the film in an effort to explore the meaning of the star’s life. A girl with an accent as flat as her town’s fields (and acting ability to match), Seberg was plucked out of a pool of 18,000 hopefuls and groomed for stardom. Whether it was luck or coincidence, Seberg appeared in some interesting films: Saint Joan, Bonjour Tristesse, Breathless. But Seberg never caught up to her stardom, which she herself perceived as unwarranted.

“It’s called showbusiness,” says Hurt in her narration, “it’s not called show art,” stressing Hollywood as a treacherous place for its front-line practitioners, the actors. As numerous beautiful stars have been degraded onscreen by their filmmaker-husbands, Rappaport throws into the mix Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, contemporaries of Seberg’s who, like her, began in bimbo parts in films directed by their spouses. All three actresses became political activists, yet Fonda and Redgrave survived and Seberg did not.

Seberg’s career curse began with Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan, which has developed an afterlife among film cognoscenti. While shooting the climactic burning a the stake scene, the actress caught fire, but the notoriously sadistic director was apparently thrilled with the cinema-verite accident.

Rock Hudson’s life derailed with his death of AIDS at the age of 59; Seberg’s, with her suicide at 40. In fairly convincing fashion, Rappaport finds premonitions of both tragic endings early in their lives. Seberg’s support of the Black Panthers made her prey to investigations by J. Edgar Hoover (The F.B.I. director had a vendetta against the Panthers), at least partly caused her downward spiral and suicide in a car parked on a Parisian street.

Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, who wrote Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone, a fictionalized account of his affair with Seberg, thinks Rappaport’s films are more illuminating than documentaries: “Fiction is closer to life, because it realizes that life is full of paradoxes. This is a work of imagination about a ghost. A dead woman is speaking, and how do you speak from the grave”

Rejecting the notion of “sacrosanct biography,” Rappaport is unapologetic about putting personal thoughts into the narration. Asked where he had found Seberg’s journals, he wittily said, “The same place where Charles Dickens found David Copperfield’s.” For him, biography is not about fact, but “a collection of what you found, or didn’t find out, and how you put together what you found out.” He allowed that viewers may question his interpretation of the events, but they can’t question his “evidence”–the film clips themselves.