[20 May 2013]
It’s an easy thing for a documentary about a beloved figure to become a mere celebration, a feature-length version of a video you’d see at an anniversary or a memorial. Tom Bean and Luke Poling’s joyful Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself swings close to that sort of encomium while never quite losing its distance. This must have been a difficult task, given the number of people willing to come out and talk about what a character old George was. But the film manages to be admiring but also complicated: instead of just singing his praises, it looks at how he came to do what he did.
The reasons begin with his background. One doesn’t get more blue-blooded than George Plimpton. Born in 1927 into one of those New England families who can trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower and have their names chiseled into many a granite edifice, Plimpton spent an entire childhood trying to fit the mold. Pressured to succeed by parents whose forebears included senators, generals, and tycoons, he failed at just about everything he tried at his boarding school Exeter (which he was summarily dismissed from before graduation). If it had been intentional, his failures at academics, athletics, and even extra-curriculars could have been read as rebellion.
Salvation arrived in the form of a 1952 summons from a friend to come to Paris and help start up a literary magazine. The first issue of The Paris Review was published in early 1953. This provided the spine for Plimpton’s peripatetic slew of careers and interests, giving him a cachet that helped when he pretended to wrestle Hulk Hogan on a late night talk show.
Although Plimpton became known later in life for such stunts, the filmmakers are eager to emphasize the literary nature of his life and pursuits. He might have been the smooth-talking guy who could banter with Capote on Dick Cavett, but deep down he wanted to be a writer. Not only that, he wanted to be a part of the writing life. So, after the magazine’s other founders went off to write fiction full time, Plimpton moved The Paris Review back to New York (he notes in one interview that the magazine wasn’t published in Paris and didn’t really run “reviews”). At that point, he began to live two intertwined lives, famous and also strangely humble. always self-aware.
In the first, more public side of his life, Plimpton threw himself into what he called “participatory journalism.” Working for Sports Illustrated back when the magazine was interested in good writing, Plimpton developed a signature style of reporting, which one newspaper termed “rookie with a notebook.” He would pick a sport for which his gangly, uncoordinated frame was wholly unsuited and convince the team to let him give it a shot. Then, in an interview clip included here, Plimpton describes inevitably realizing “the great chasm between the amateur and the professional” would appear. His writing would then be a part-sardonic, part-wistful exploration of the experience, using himself as the comic relief. In book after book, he would try out various sports (professional golf, baseball, hockey) and fail miserably on the field but succeed wildly on the page. Filmmaker Ric Burns calls what Plimpton did “looking for the perfect moment of abject failure.” Paper Lion, Plimpton’s account of playing as last-string quarterback for the Detroit Lions, turned out to be a bestseller. It made him a name and landed him in the Rolodex of talk show bookers always happy to have a droll, natural-born storyteller like him on between the film star and the animal act.
In his other life, Plimpton ran The Paris Review out of his Upper East Side apartment. He hobbed and nobbed with as many of the literati as he could cram into the apartment for the all-hours cocktail parties he would throw at the drop of a hat. The magazine always ran a deficit, which is why Plimpton would lend his patrician, mid-Atlantic accent to any commercial endeavor that would have him. (Incredibly, the filmmakers unearth a clip of him shilling for a garage door opener.) It was all worth it, if the result meant a magazine that publishes everyone from Terry Southern to Jonathan Safran Foer and whose interviews with writers (Plimpton’s specialty) became the literary world’s gold standard for trying to figure out How They Do It.
That bifurcated life came with a price, though not one that Plimpton cared much about. His friends Peter Matthiessen and James Salter express frustration at the idea that Plimpton was seen as being little more than a clown. (In fact, one of his better stunts was actually trying to join the circus, in a reality-TV-precursor documentary series he did for ABC in the 1970s.) What they don’t note is that Plimpton’s chronicling of failures wasn’t just some act, it was an attempt to get at the nature of excellence. Plimpton didn’t let himself get pummeled by boxer Archie Moore or pitch to Willie Mays solely for a gag. It was the same thing he was trying to discover in all of those writer interviews he conducted or edited for the magazine: how does one excel? What some of those other writers don’t seem to get is that he did succeed. The writing included here from Paper Lion and other works reveals a crisp and clear voice that easily ranks up with any of the A-list New Journalists with whom he is usually classified.
The warm, imperfect portrait painted here of Plimpton feels honest, like it captures something essential about the man. It’s an intoxicating kind of life that he seemed to have created for himself, having discovered a means whereby he could satisfy his boundless curiosities and still be a writer while doing so. The word “dilettante” is thrown about a lot in the film, and if Plimpton were still around (he died in 2003), he probably wouldn’t have disputed it. What he might have had issue with was why that would be considered an insult.