George Plimpton spent a lifetime stepping into other people’s shoes. It’s only fitting that he’s finally talking about what it was like to walk in his own.
That this is possible, 10 years after his death in 2003 when Plimpton was a robust 76, is due to a treasure trove of audio, video and written archives. Filmmakers Tom Bean and Luke Poling have polished up the best of it in an engaging new documentary aptly titled “Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself.”
The movie by the writing/directing pair is almost as captivating as their subject. Through liberal use of the source material, much of it courtesy of Plimpton’s widow, Sarah, we’re able to hear the writer-editor’s wry reflections on life, literature and the art of failing fabulously, which he mastered above all else.
That Plimpton was a great storyteller we know from the many books and articles he produced over a lifetime. His talent seemed fully formed from the beginning — a raconteur as riveting when talking about pitching in Yankee Stadium in 1958 as he is opposite Charlie Rose in his later days. “Paper Lion,” his incisive and moving take on football and his stint with the Detroit Lions, gets a deserving star turn in the documentary.
Plimpton’s distinctive voice, familiar to many of us who followed his grand escapades, lends an intimacy, an immediacy to the film. It’s a great trick the filmmakers have pulled off to make us feel as if we’re there sorting through the memories with him. The movie’s editing is especially artful with Maya Hawke and Casey Brooks doing the nipping and tucking.
Much of the film’s appeal is in its understated, yet tightly disciplined, style. It moves quickly through Plimpton’s early years and personal life: His expulsion from the prestigious Exeter Academy. His father a distant and disapproving figure.
A defining moment came on the campaign trail with Robert F. Kennedy. Literally at the candidate’s side in 1968 when Kennedy was gunned down in L.A.'s Ambassador Hotel kitchen, Plimpton never wrote about that day, nor his role in grabbing the gunman, Sirhan Sirhan, in the chaos after. All those years of silence by the most talkative of men make the excerpts from his recorded police deposition all the more powerful.
Of course, we see his well-known lofty literary side as founder of the esteemed Paris Review and friend to the great novelists of the time. One cocktail party snapshot is crowded with literati. Truman Capote, Mario Puzo, William Styron, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Ralph Ellison, Gore Vidal — the names pop up on the screen one by one, faces circled, the laughter and the discourse possible to imagine so candid is the shot.
There is some background history about the Paris Review sketched in by childhood friend and co-founder Peter Matthiessen. But the magazine’s relevancy is underscored by simple shots of its cover and its pages — an author’s name, a story title, and then another and another.
It is a hit parade of novelists, their works and their words showcased by the Review, topped by Hemingway, Plimpton’s idol. Excitement animates his voice in the remembering of the interview he did with “Papa” in Spain in the 1950s.
But it is his labored attempts at football, baseball, hockey, swimming, the trapeze, the triangle and so much more — many chronicled in TV specials as well as on page — that will be remembered best. Plimpton called it participatory journalism, but in a sense, Plimpton was the original reality star.
The film captures the way he wrote about his defeats and deficiencies in glorious detail. He proved to have an equally keen eye for how the stars of the various games and gambits he tackled talked, looked, practiced, performed, fought, fell and felt. Winning was never Plimpton’s endgame, understanding was.
Though he may have sought to illuminate, that he craved the spotlight becomes abundantly clear in interviews with his family. As his first wife, Freddy, says, the party never stopped.
He was an unlikely daredevil, which is perhaps what makes it so riveting to watch the old footage even now. Tall, lanky and stylish, Plimpton had the look of someone who’s nose was never bloodied. Yet there he is in one clip, decked out in boxing trunks stepping into the ring with Archie Moore in 1959, the reigning light heavyweight champion of the world.
Bookending the film is his legendary ascent — in pinkish tights — up the wobbly rope ladder to a platform nearly topping the big top. It is stomach churning and comical to watch him teetering slightly as he waits to grab the swinging trapeze.
Plimpton’s self-awareness comes through again and again in the film, which does a good job of mirroring his slightly mocking tone. It is there as he talks about being a “zero,” the number his jersey carried whether on the ice with Boston Bruins or on a bench during a Detroit Lions game. As he says, reading an excerpt from “Paper Lion,” it wouldn’t do to have an ordinary guy succeed.
Though athletes were his specialty, Plimpton’s observations about our fascination with the famous resonates far more broadly. He understood the “it” factor earlier and better than most. He tried it on for size.
Becoming “it” for a moment was his greatest role. Beautifully captured in the documentary, being Plimpton was never quite enough.