LONDON, UK — Garry McGee could never quite get the idea of a documentary about Jean Seberg out of his head.
As a native Iowan who moved to Los Angeles to work in the film industry, he remembers the common response when he revealed where he came from — “Oh, Jean Seberg was from Iowa.”
“I was really surprised that of all the famous people that have come from our state, she was the one they mentioned most often,” McGee said.
Now, almost 30 years after the idea was hatched — McGee has also written three books about Seberg in the meantime — “Jean Seberg: Actress, Activist, Icon” premiered at the Raindance Film Festival on Thursday. McGee and Kelly Rundle co-directed the film, and they are also listed as co-writers and co-producers along with Tammy Rundle.
Seberg fans and Marshalltonians may already have some familiarity with the documentary as earlier cuts (under different titles) have been screened at the annual film festival held in her honor here. The timing is also fortuitous in light of another movie released in 2019: Amazon’s biopic/docudrama “Seberg,” which stars Kristen Stewart and details the FBI’s COINTELPRO campaign against her before her untimely death in 1979.
“Jean Seberg: Actress, Activist, Icon” covers all aspects of her life and career: the actress’s early years in Marshalltown, her discovery through a talent search and subsequent casting in Otto Preminger’s “Saint Joan,” her move to France and her star-making performance in Jean-Luc Godard’s French New Wave classic “Breathless,” and her increased activism on behalf of Native Americans and African-Americans that ultimately made her a target of the FBI.
Although she never garnered the acclaim or awards of contemporaries like Julie Christie, Faye Dunaway and Shirley MacLaine, McGee said he was always intrigued with Seberg’s acting choices and the fact that over half of her performances were in French, her second language.
“It’s very odd to see a young woman in “Breathless” speaking French in Paris, and nine years later, she’s in Oregon in an 1800s movie musical called “Paint Your Wagon.” Just the 180 degree type of range,” McGee said. “I’m thinking ‘How many actors take chances like that?’ And I thought, wow.”
McGee knew he had great material for a documentary after compiling interviews with a host of Seberg experts and people who knew her, but he shifted his focus to writing a biography of the actress in the mid 1990s. Rejection letter after rejection letter followed, with one editor informing that the details he had unearthed amounted to little more than “water under the bridge.”
Nevertheless, he kept pushing forward, if for no other reason than to correct the record on what he sees as myths and fabrications that the FBI and the news media at the time used to smear Seberg — most infamous, perhaps, was the false story that she was pregnant with the child of Black Panther Raymond Hewitt. McGee still doubts that Seberg committed suicide.
“There’s a great possibility that she didn’t die by her own hand, but it’s just so easy to just say she did it to wrap up this tragic story even more tragically,” he said. “That’s just irresponsible.”
Nancy Adams, a Marshalltown Community College professor and local Seberg enthusiast, has known McGee for nearly 20 years, and she commended him for his passion, knowledge, willingness to share and his “sense of protection” toward the actress.
“I then felt honored and still do that he has allowed me to learn from him and kind of be on this journey of keeping her relevant and bringing her back,” Adams said. “One of the things that does genuinely strike me about Jean are the genuine, heartfelt, lifelong connections that have been forged in her name. I think it’s impressive, and it’s heartwarming.”
Adams added that Seberg’s life story offers something for everyone: she was a gifted writer, a voice for the disenfranchised, a talented actor and a fashion trailblazer. And while the Kristen Stewart film has received a lukewarm reception (it currently holds a 36 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes), Adams believes it has raised her profile with modern audiences.
“I think that more people are aware of her, and I think that if that movie led them to either an introduction to Jean or an increased interest in her, that’s not a bad thing,” she said. “Because maybe they will then seek out the documentary, one of Garry’s books or one of the other more fact-based pieces of information out there.”
After the premiere at Raindance, which the production team did not get to attend in person, McGee hopes to submit the documentary to other film festivals in Europe, and he’s also optimistic that this new, final version will someday screen in Marshalltown. He sees it as a film both for diehard fans and newcomers who just want to learn more about a Hollywood icon.
Contact Robert Maharry
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