Don’t let the aristocratic elocution fool you. George Plimpton’s blue-blooded pedigree seems to re-establish itself with every dropped r, and yet the first time he appears onscreen in the documentary “Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself,” the lanky, noodle-limbed character is dressed in a pink leotard and matching tights.
He was many things, the documentary reveals, but self-serious was not among the late writer’s lengthy list of descriptors.
What does make the roster: last-string quarterback for the Detroit Lions, New York Philharmonic triangle player, sparring partner to boxing great Archie Moore, Boston Bruins goalie and big-top trapeze artist (hence the clingy get-up). All of these short-term positions, and many more, were part of his “participatory journalism,” which yielded stories for “Sports Illustrated,” among other publications, and books, such as bestseller “Paper Lion.”
Plimpton was willing to humiliate himself as an amateur among professionals to give Everyday Joes a window into an elite world. But that inclination wasn’t the only thing that makes Plimpton a worthy documentary subject. Directors Tom Bean and Luke Poling dig beneath the writer’s superficial story, which would probably prove interesting by itself.
Plimpton was an Upper East Side kid who failed at extracurriculars and didn’t fare much better academically. He was ultimately kicked out of Exeter, to the horror of his strict father, but went on to co-found the Paris Review. He served as the storied literary magazine’s editor from 1953 until his death 50 years later.
His personal life was equally compelling. Part of the Kennedy clan’s inner circle, Plimpton was present when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated and helped wrestle the gun from Sirhan Sirhan. On the lighter side, he loved a good party and often hosted impromptu soirees with such invitees as Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe and Allen Ginsberg.
In many cases the filmmakers let Plimpton speak for himself with video and audio of speeches and book readings. But the insights from other interview subjects round out the portrait. Occasional party attendee Hugh Hefner calls Plimpton a class act, but the spur-of-the-moment celebrations failed to impress Plimpton’s first and second wives, both of whom are interviewed.
Further complicating the view, Plimpton’s friends and literary contemporaries call him a dilettante for his experiential exercises, which expanded to made-for-TV specials. He failed to live up to his writing potential, they say, instead starring in commercials for garage door openers, among other products. According to a wife, those profits financed the Paris Review.
Most compellingly, the filmmakers investigate the underlying meaning of Plimpton’s dabbling. Some say his ability to play professional sports was a way to make up for his earlier shortcomings; he may have been cut from the Exeter football team, but he managed to become a member of the Detroit Lions. But there are other, less simplistic explanations. Even his wives and children admit that the man never seemed comfortable getting close to people, and maybe participatory journalism allowed Plimpton to remain an outsider even while surrounded by a crowd.
Plimpton never quite fit anywhere. He was a brilliant writer, but not serious enough for the literati, and a perpetual naif among experts. In some moments his loner tendencies seem sad, but then there he is again in head-to-toe pink. He might look ridiculous preparing to swing on a trapeze bar, but it sure seems like he is enjoying the ride.
Unrated. At West End Cinema. Contains brief strong language. 89 minutes.