Two female icons of the screen. One, a second-generation Hollywood royal, and ubiquitous for over 50 years; the other, born in obscurity, still mysterious and lesser-known today, her biography mired by tragedy and untimely death. What unites them? That’s the focus of “Jane & Jean” the new season of You Must Remember This, Karina Longworth’s popular and addictive podcast about 20th century Hollywood – now over three years and 100-plus episodes old – which finds an unexpected sisterhood between Jane Fonda and Jean Seberg. As told by the honey-voiced Longworth – a charismatic, details-obsessed film critic and historian – YMRT has previously delved into the Blacklist, Hollywood during World War II, Charles Manson’s Hollywood connections and Joan Crawford. Most recently, the “Dead Blondes” season explored the spiritual and cultural import of such doomed women as Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Veronica Lake and Grace Kelly.
As Longworth tells Rolling Stone, that’s where Jean Seberg first came into the picture. While the Breathless actress – who committed suicide at age 40 in 1979 – was ultimately replaced by another actress (Barbara Loden) for a chapter in the last season, Longworth couldn’t shake her.
“I had this idea. ‘What if I did a whole season about Jean Seberg and what it was like to enter the Hollywood studio system right before it ended, and then become a counterculture character, and then not really live to see the full flowering of the new Blockbuster Era?” Longworth explains. “And it hit me that the way to do that would be to compare and contrast her to Jane Fonda, who was almost the exact same age and had some very similar experiences, but who then obviously has ended up in a really different place.”
Here, Longworth discusses Jane Fonda’s second and third acts, the future of podcasting, Gaga’s Star Is Born and why the future of Hollywood isn’t necessarily garbage.
So, Jean Seberg. Most laypeople know her for Breathless and not much else.
American moviegoers would’ve last seen her in Airport, which was the biggest movie of the summer of 1970. And she continued to work in Europe, but she had quite a lot of problems throughout the Seventies, as I’ll elaborate on in the season. The FBI considered her to be one of the top public enemies of the state. Both she and Jane Fonda were highly active as social activists. Jean’s primary cause had to do with civil rights; she did give money to and was a supporter of the Black Panthers, which was one of the major causes that J. Edgar Hoover prosecuted in late Sixties and Seventies.
Unlike most of the subjects on your show, Jane Fonda is still very much with us. Did you consider reaching out to her?
I have not tried to contact her. This is not an interview show. But this is a new challenge for me, because I’ve never done a whole season about someone who is alive. I come from the background of being a film critic, and I try to be as objective as I possibly can after reading everything I can possibly read on a subject, then I give my educated, objective take. That gets really complicated when you’re collaborating with a person whose story you’re telling. I don’t know what I’ll do if Jane Fonda reaches out to me and wants to be a part of the show, I have to be honest. But right now the season is planned out to be conducted the way all of my previous season are.
One of the things you’ve done so beautifully on the show is to pause on the biographical and historical details and examine a film which elucidates something new or unexpected about the subject. In looking back at Jane’s performances, was there one in particular that struck you? No spoilers, of course.
There was a documentary made about her in 1962 [Jane], by D.A. Pennebaker, that documents the play she was starring in called The Fun Couple, which was directed by her boyfriend/mentor [Andreas Voutsinas]. It’s a really fascinating document of when Jane was sort of famous but hadn’t really become a big star yet. And then another thing: there are a few of her movies that she made in the Eighties. Two that I’d never seen before that I’ve really grown to love are Rollover, a financial thriller directed by Alan Pakula starring Kris Kristofferson as a banker trying to shadily save his international bank; he does it by seducing a widow, played by Jane Fonda, so he can get her money. But then things take a few interesting turns, and it’s one of the most beautiful Eighties movies. The way it visually depicts corporate culture is really interesting; it’s a really interesting performance. And then a movie where she’s completely front and center is The Morning After, which is a Sidney Lumet film.
Same question, but with Jean: was there a particularly illuminating performance?
I think a lot of people have maybe they’ve heard of her or seen Breathless, but they don’t really know her body of work. So I don’t necessarily want to seize on one film, because a lot of the season will be discovering her as an actress. But I will say that she’s in a movie that’s widely reviled as one of the reasons why the New Hollywood had to happen. It’s just an example of a late-Sixties bloated blockbuster that shouldn’t’ have been made, and that movie’s called Paint Your Wagon. And I watched that movie for the first time this week and I think I have maybe a contrarian take on it. So people can look forward to that.
Did Jane and Jean ever meet, interact or socialize?
Yeah. I don’t think they were close friends, but because they were acting at the same time and they had some sort of common circles. They were both married to French men and spent significant time in France, they definitely knew each other, and there’s a couple moments across the season where their paths cross. [Both women were married three times. Seberg was wed to French director François Moreuil, French diplomat/director Romain Gary and American director Dennis Berry. Fonda’s ex-husbands are French Barbarella director Roger Vadim, politician Tom Hayden, and media mogul Ted Turner.]
What year does the season wrap? Jean’s death?
It is a little bit TBD, because I’m still doing the research and writing, but my plan right now is that the final episode is the last year is Jean Seberg’s death, and that basically coincides with Jane Fonda making 9 To 5 and becoming this aerobic superstar.
You really could do an entire, ongoing podcast just about Jane Fonda. There’s so much there.
That’s the thing: I really could take it all the way to the present, but sometimes what I like to do is give myself limits. Maybe in the future I’ll cover Jane Fonda in the Eighties and Nineties. One of the things that’s really interesting about her autobiography, especially for me as a baseball fan, is that she wrote it shortly after her marriage to Ted Turner when she was going to Atlanta Braves games all the time. And so she uses all these baseball metaphors in her autobiography, so you know “Jane Fonda: Baseball Fan” might be something to leave on the table for later!
As someone who’s really succeeding in this space, what surprised you about what goes into producing a podcast – and about the proliferation of podcasting as a new medium?
It’s surprising to me that it is a business and that I’m successful at it. When I started the podcast, I really didn’t know if anyone would like it, I didn’t know how to reach an audience, I didn’t know what I was doing technically, and I learned as I went along. I’ve been very lucky that the audience has just grown over time. I didn’t make money off the podcast for over a year, now there’s pretty good income coming in – but there is an assistant I pay, and I do have expenses. I just feel very lucky that it’s worked out, but the Internet is cyclical and culture is cyclical; if you’re doing really well in something that involves technology it can be dangerous to assume it will last forever. So I’m going all out right now, and then I’ll probably move on to something else eventually.
People love your speaking voice, which sounds like Old Hollywood itself. Do you have formal training, elocution lessons?
No! I was born in the San Fernando Valley, so when I’m recording the podcast, I get into character a little bit. I had some acting training as a teenager, but nothing more then I would say, you know, most precocious girls. I definitely have never had any vocal training, and that’s something that’s kept me from pursuing acting professionally: I was constantly being critiqued over the fact that I couldn’t control my voice very well.
One of your favorite movies ever is the Judy Garland version of A Star Is Born. What are your thoughts about this Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper remake?
I’ll definitely see it. I like Gaga a lot. I don’t have good feelings about Bradley Cooper but I’m glad Clint Eastwood’s not making this movie [with then-rumored star Beyonce]. So yeah, I’m curious and optimistic. I’m rooting for Gaga.
Last year, your “Six Degrees of Joan Crawford” season included a fantastic episode on the making of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. What’d you think of FX’s Feud: Bette and Joan?
I don’t think that it makes sense for me to comment, because I did my own version of that material, so … If I said something positive I’m worried people would think I’m being fake. And if I said something negative, that would be really unseemly, so I’ll just leave it at that.
Your podcast explores a bittersweet nostalgia for Hollywood’s Golden Age. There’s no longer a studio system producing movies that everyone sees, featuring stars to mythologize; thanks to streaming services and the Internet, there’s unlimited choice for everyone. What’s lost in this equation?
I have to dispute the question a little bit. It’s correct that there aren’t movie stars the way they used to be, and there’s not the kind of process of finding and building stars that there used to be. But the demise of the studios I think has been a little overstated. Studios are corporate conglomerates that are extremely powerful, and there are still movies that everybody goes to see. Maybe it’s not quite as culture-defining as it was in the past, or maybe it’s not the movies that we’d like, but certainly there are the superhero and franchise movies – a lot of them are making more money than movies have ever made. We can talk about things that are lost as the culture changes and as the industry changes, but for me it’s more an evolution. And honestly, when you have movies like Get Out become huge hits, it’s hard not to feel optimistic.
And I’ve known [Moonlight director] Barry Jenkins since 2008, and watching what’s happened to his career in the past year is so exciting and, you know, it would’ve been unfathomable a year and a half ago to think that it would be Best Picture winner Moonlight. So I really do think that we’re getting signs that things are changing in a really interesting way.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.