This Sunday, March 13, the first Sunday of Lent, Turner Classic Movies will feature films about one of the Catholic Church’s most popular saints, Joan of Arc. On Wednesday the 16th, TCM will honor the Museum of Modern Art’s film archive by screening 14 films representing its collection. Each of these tributes will include a film starring Jean Seberg and directed by Otto Preminger.
While Saint Joan (1957) and Bonjour Tristesse (1958) rank somewhere in the mid-range of Preminger's body of work (which includes Laura, The Man With the Golden Arm and Anatomy of a Murder), they were Seberg’s first two films and significant for their influence on the evolution of her unconventional career.
Preminger was riding high in 1956 when he announced that, a la David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind campaign, he was going to audition unknowns for the title role in his upcoming opus, an adaptation of the 1923 George Bernard Shaw play Saint Joan. Enormous publicity accompanied his worldwide search and he auditioned thousands of candidates. In the end he made only three screen tests and selected an inexperienced American teenager over actresses Kelli Blaine of New York and Doreen Denning of Stockholm.
Jean Seberg was a 17-year old amateur from Marshalltown, Iowa, when she was chosen to star as Saint Joan. Though she had aspired to be an actress from an early age, her stage experience consisted of one season with a local stock company. But Preminger was impressed with the unusual combination of piquancy and pliability he detected in her - plus Seberg was an innocent, “younger than springtime,” fine-featured blonde.
|Jean Seberg as Saint Joan|
Saint Joan was not well received, though Preminger's promotional fanfare had stirred up great interest and anticipation. Saul Bass's evocative title sequence (shown below) hints at the film's appeal. Perhaps its true potential was the moderate success of a well-intentioned presitige piece, but it failed with the mass audience to which it was promoted. The press criticized Preminger's direction and Grahame Greene's screenplay, but it was Jean Seberg who received scathing reviews and was widely blamed for the flop.
Preminger's next project was already in the works by the time Saint Joan wrapped. And he planned, once again, to feature Jean Seberg in a starring role.
In 1954, 19-year-old French writer Francioise Sagan created an international sensation with her racy first novel, Bonjour Tristesse. Preminger and Seberg's next film would be an adaptation of Sagan's bestseller. Seberg was to co-star with Deborah Kerr and David Niven as Niven's daughter, a spoiled café society brat. The melodramatic tale of dissipation and cruelty was primarily set and filmed on the French Riviera during the high season. And Preminger provided his company with the finest in accommodations and luxury extras. Nevertheless, Seberg was once more subjected to his volatile temperament. This time, though, one of her co-stars stood up to the director. Deborah Kerr challenged Preminger, telling him she could not tolerate his abusive treatment of the young actress.
By the time filming was completed, Seberg was engaged to Francois Moreuil a French lawyer, and her collaboration with Preminger was about to come to an end. Bonjour Tristesse was set for release in January 1958 and, following the demise of Saint Joan, Seberg's career seemed to rest on the success or failure of her second film. In an interview at the time of Bonjour Tristesse's release, she was aggressively grilled on the subject... click here to view Jean Seberg's January 1958 interview with Mike Wallace.
Bonjour Tristesse failed miserably when it was released, and both Preminger and Seberg were subjected to a drubbing in the press. Perhaps by this time the director had given up his dream of making her a star for he had no future plans to work with her and when Francoise Moreuil, by now Seberg's husband, approached him about selling her contract to Columbia, Preminger agreed. Within a year the studio cast her in The Mouse That Roared (1959), a popular Peter Sellers vehicle and, though a "small" film, it was Seberg's first success.
Very soon Jean Seberg's career would undergo another unexpected twist.
|...with Belmondo in Breathless|
Seberg was introduced to Godard by her husband. After much discussion between the actress and the auteur, a 12-page telegram from Godard to Moreuil and an affordable arrangement for all concerned, a deal was struck. Godard saw Seberg as an international name who could help his film succeed outside France, and Seberg was anxious to prove herself. To her good fortune, Godard was no bully and worked well with actresses, filming them to advantage. Another surprise for Seberg in working with Godard was his approach to the script. She might be given her lines on pieces of paper in the morning before a shoot or Godard might shout lines to her during a scene. Godard was experienced at writing dialogue and he was able to shout while shooting because the film was shot mute with sound and dialogue added later. But all of this was new to Seberg whose previous performances had been entirely controlled by the autocratic Preminger.
No one on the project at the time realized Breathless would receive the level of acclaim or have the influence on cinema that it achieved. Hailed for its bold visual style and approach to editing, it became a pivotal film of the French New Wave.
Jean Seberg became a legend along with the film and her co-star, Jean-Paul Belmondo. Her casual boyish chic and pixie haircut (predating Mia Farrow's famous 'do by many years) remain iconic today. She went on to make films in both Europe and the U.S., though her later American films were generally lackluster.
Saint Joan is now appreciated as a sincere if uneven attempt to translate weighty Shaw to film and is generally viewed as an honorable effort. Bonjour Tristesse's popularity has improved dramatically since 1958. Frequently cited are visually striking scenes of grainy black and white that dissolve into stunning color as the story moves from present to past and back again. The film's themes, estrangement and excess among the rich and languid, are noted for anticipating those Fellini famously visited with La Dolce Vita a few years later.
Jean Seberg's earliest performances have been assessed more fairly in recent years and many critics view her work far differently than her detractors of the 1950s. David Thomson has called her Saint Joan "a shrewd and touching fusion of provincial America, rural France, and Shaw's notion of a fustian saint picking logic with kings and bishops." He has deemed her portrayal in Bonjour Tristesse "marvelous" and praised her self-possession and maturity.
Turner Classic Movies Schedule
Saint Joan airs Sunday, March 13, at 10:30pm Eastern/7:30pm Pacific
Bonjour Tristesse airs Wednesday, March 16, at 9:30pm Eastern/6:30pm Pacific