George Plimpton (1927-2003) led two professional lives. Within cultural circles, he was famous, and cherished, as editor of the literary quarterly The Paris Review. He was famous in the world at large for his forays as what he called “a participatory journalist.” What that meant, Plimpton explained, was that he would “enter other people’s professions in order to write articles on what happens.” The professions included NFL quarterback, NHL goalie, New York Philharmonic percussionist, and circus aerialist.
Plimpton failed at all those professions, of course. That was the point. When fantasy challenges reality, reality always wins — or at least it does insofar as performance is concerned. That failure was at the heart of Plimpton’s appeal. “He brought the joy of victory even in his defeats,” says Sports Illustrated editor Terry McDonell.
McDonell makes that comment in “Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself.” Besides winning this year’s award for most forthright title, Tom Bean and Luke Poling’s documentary shows that its subject’s true talent may have been for an occupation no less rarefied than the ones he failed at: movie star. Bean is a graduate of Marblehead High School, and Poling is from Newton.
Actually, one of the occupations Plimpton tried was movie bit player. He was 4th Gunman (that’s the credit) in the 1970 western “Rio Lobo.” There’s a very funny clip of Plimpton being introduced to John Wayne, by Howard Hawks, no less.
“Paper Tiger, right?” says Wayne. A sheepish Plimpton corrects him, “Paper Lion.” That’s the title of his best-known book.
Plimpton is a nearly ideal documentary subject. It’s one thing to be so personable and have such a distinctive voice (a kind of cold-roast honk). It’s quite another to have so much footage of the subject to draw on. Yes, that’s Plimpton being interviewed by Hugh Hefner, circa 1970. Yes, that’s Plimpton as a TV pitchman for products ranging from a do-it-yourself garage-door opener to a video game system. Yes, that’s Plimpton seen in home movies with various Kennedys. There’s so much Plimpton footage (audio, too) that Bean and Poling are able to use him as their de facto narrator.
Finally, as names like Hefner and Kennedy suggest, there are all the famous and exciting people Plimpton associated with. They range from Ernest Hemingway (his endorsement adorned the cover of Plimpton’s first book, “Out of Their League ”) to Woody Allen. We see Allen giving advice to Plimpton on stand-up comedy. The clips of Plimpton doing that act on stage are even more painful to watch than the ones of him in the ring with light-heavyweight champ Archie Moore. Plimpton campaigned with Robert Kennedy in 1968 and helped subdue Sirhan Sirhan, RFK’s assassin. The most striking episode in a documentary full of them is hearing the audiotape of Plimpton’s police deposition about the shooting.
“Plimpton” isn’t perfect. Bean and Poling are a trifle worshipful toward their subject. Nor do they credit enough Plimpton’s importance as an editor, instead emphasizing his failing to be a novelist or more “serious” writer. Of course failure was for Plimpton what masculinity was for Hemingway: the great given in his work. It was that ongoing engagement with failure that made Plimpton a kind of everyman. “Plimpton!” could just as accurately have a different subtitle, “Starring George Plimpton as the Rest of Us.”