JEAN SEBERG was a wine sold before its time. Hand-picked for celebrity before she was 18, she was a laughingstock by the time she was 20, washed up in American films by 31, thrice married by 34, a suicide at 40. She had, John Gielgud once remarked, learned to be a star before she became an actress, and it was an experience she never recovered from.

Seberg's story touched so many bases of the mid-20th-century American experience, from her cornfed background to her flirtation with European sophistication, her involvement with black activism followed by pitiless harassment by the FBI, that there is a temptation to see it all as a sobering lesson for our time. Surely a cautionary tale is lurking in the debris of her sad life if we could but figure out what it's supposed to caution us against. Is it early success, overweening ambition, unbending innocence, unblinking commitment, or perhaps some incendiary combination of all four?

David Richards, drama critic for The Washington Star, tries to answer these questions, tries to tell us how Seberg regressed from the Marshalltown, Iowa, innocent Otto Preminger picked to star in Saint Joan in 1956 to the decaying corpse found in the back seat of a white Renault on a quiet Paris street 23 years later. Despite a lack of cooperation from Romain Gary, Jean's second and pivotal husband, who recently ended up a suicide himself, Richards has done an excellent job of research and reporting, and his book is clearly definitive. Unfortunately, reading it leads to the conclusion that Jean Seberg is not someone whose life cries out for definitive treatment. As heartbreaking as her story appears in outline, one cannot read it in detail without feeling that the author has made much ado about not very much at all.

Throughout her life, Richards emphasizes, Seberg's impulses were a blend of the theatrical and the idealistic. She was a woman who liked to be perceived as a flawed innocent, "the tranquil blossom on the tortued stem" in the words of a favorite Edna St. Vincent Millay poem. She always seemed on the verge of doing great and good work, either dramatically or for social causes, but men kept getting in the way. She was a selfless giver, Richards tells us, and the men in her life just took, took, took.

First in line was director Otto Preminger, who in Seberg's own words, "used me like a Kleenex and threw me away." A classic heavy down to his automatic manner and Teutonic accent, Preminger is described as difficult, intractable and given to rages, and that's only on one page. He made Our Jean miserable and, according to one theory, permanently crippled her talent and confidence.

Next came French novelist Romain Gary, an older man who gave her a crash course in refinement and savoir faire but used her as both source material and ego booster. They married, had a child, and were for a time very much in love, but the picture of Seberg literally sitting at his feet and addressing him as "dear master" is not a particularly pleasant one.

Finally there was Hakim Abdullah Jamal, a black activist who comes off as a combination of Malcolm X and P. T. Barnum. He used her as a meal ticket and she in turn got the opportunity to "play the role of high emotion that had eluded her on screen, and to participate in a drama next to which her films paled." It was a role she played with great panache but at a terrible price, for it led to a series of nervous breakdowns, excessive reliance on prescription drugs, hospitalizations and a clandestine campaign against her by the FBI, which effectively ruined what was left of her physical and mental well-being.

What this melodramatic story needs and doesn't get is a quality of dispassion. Richards is like the detective in Preminger's movie Laura, who falls in love with a portrait of a woman. Richards' involvement is evident as early as the acknowledgements, when he says he got a big lift the day one of Seberg's ex-husbands told him, "Jean would have liked you." So much for objectivity. Bad words about Seberg rarely appear in this book, and when they do show up, for instance when Gary's ex-wife Lesley Branch calls her "pretty and ruthless. She had no style or discipline and she wasted a great deal of my ex-husband's time and money," it comes as more of a shock than it should.

This partisanship extends to Richards' discussion of Seberg's 37 films. Most of them, with the notable exceptions of Breathless and Lilith, were failures of one type or another. But the idea that just maybe they all flopped because Seberg, for all her good intentions, beauty and swell personality was, in director Irvin Kershner's words, "a limited actress [who] lacked the technique for Hollywood" is not a thought Richards likes to entertain. Yet Seberg's lack of ability eventually becomes clear, if only by implication, and that makes her story that much less involving.

Hampered by this lack of distance, and by Richards' classic journalist's difficulty with synthesizing something new and whole out of a wealth of quotable quotes, Played Out's overriding problem is a lack of substance. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that the problem with American lives is that they lacked final acts. Jean Seberg's life had a rouser of a last act, and not a bad first one either, but there is nothing in the center but a woman-child who never quite grew up, and portraying her as a poor little match girl who died for our sins can't camouflage that unhappy fact.