Biopics on Helen Reddy and Jean Seberg at TIFF: Part 1
Tilda Cobham-Hervey in ‘I Am Woman’

TORONTO—“Share Her Journey” is a five-year program at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) to increase participation and opportunities for women in front of and behind the camera. A record 36% (114) of all films at this year’s festival were directed or co-directed by women. This determined effort to honor the artistry of women in the industry also extended to many films that featured women as the subject matter. Several biopics illuminated the stories of prominent women throughout history.

One that symbolizes the struggle of equal rights is the fascinating story about the singer/activist who provided the anthem for the movement itself. I Am Woman is the first feature film from Korean female director Unjoo Moon, who now resides in Australia. It covers the story of Australian artist Helen Reddy, starting from the day she arrived in New York in 1966 to continue her music career in the States. With daughter in hand, she arrives in New York to redeem the gift she won back in Australia to do a free recording session. Reddy quickly finds out it was a scam and is left on the streets with no money and a child to raise. She is soon rescued by two important figures who played a major role in her life.

A writer named Lillian Roxon (The Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll), whom she knew from back home, takes Reddy and her daughter into her small apartment. It’s there at a party one night that she meets her future manager and husband, Jeff Wald, who at the time was working for the prestigious William Morris talent agency. He went on to become a highly successful businessman in Los Angeles but later succumbed to drugs. It was discovered that Helen’s earnings were being stolen by her management team, and she was forced to restart her career, this time with the confidence of a woman who was seasoned in the struggle.

The well crafted film captures the aura of the 1970s and ’80s. Australian actress Tilda Cobham-Hervey provides an uncanny replication of the iconic performer. The main theme running through the film is her developing awareness of how women—and in her case unwed mothers—are treated unjustly in society and specifically in the music industry. A beautiful closing scene utilizes archival footage of Helen coming out of retirement to sing her powerful song in the nation’s capital before a vast gathering of activists who rejoiced in her invaluable contributions to the movement.

Kristen Stewart in ‘Seberg’

Jean Seberg and Saint Joan

An artist whose personal life and career went in a more tragic direction is the famed actress Jean Seberg. Discovered by Otto Preminger at the age of 17, she began her film career playing no less a figure than the celebrated Joan of Arc in Saint Joan (1957). After a dismal failure, and suffering burns over her body when the witch burning scene at the end of filming went awry, Seberg moved to Paris in 1960 and starred in Jean Luc Godard’s award-winning Breathless, which unexpectedly gained her international fame.

But what happened after, and the tragic downturn in her personal life, is the main focus of an impressive new biopic entitled Seberg which covers just a small segment but probably most important part of her life. It was little known that Seberg was funding and supporting groups like the Black Panthers and working for racial justice in America. A famous white actress funding Black liberation causes and supporting anti-war struggles was a prime target for J. Edgar Hoover and the secret COINTELPRO program that eventually disrupted and destroyed many organizations and people committed to social justice, including hers.

Seberg was eventually followed and hounded by Hoover and his henchmen, who spread rumors that she was pregnant from a Black Panther member, even though she denied it. She suffered from justified paranoia over the constant surveillance and bugging of her home and hotel rooms. After moving to Paris and losing her baby, who lived only two days, she attempted suicide. The story of this courageous woman has finally reached the big screen where her commitment to peace and justice will now be appreciated by a world audience. The film ends with the poignant rendition by Nina Simone of the Bob Dylan song “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.

Part 2 of TIFF’s spotlight on women this year will follow shortly.


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.