Curious George

Andrew Hultkrans on Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

Tom Bean and Luke Poling, Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, 2013, digital video, color, sound, 87 minutes. George Plimpton.

DESPITE OUTWARD TRAPPINGS OF SUCCESS, George Plimpton’s life was a fugue of failure, beginning, as we learn in the affectionate new documentary Plimpton!, with his inability to obtain any varsity letters at—or to even graduate from—Exeter, the elite New Hampshire prep school. As a scion of a prominent WASP family in an era when that still mattered, he nevertheless managed to matriculate to Harvard and complete graduate studies at Cambridge. None of this made any positive impression on his father, a New York lawyer and supreme exemplar of the Protestant ethic, who constantly sent the young George notes and letters extolling the virtues of hard work and urging him never to postpone till tomorrow what could be done today. These admonitions and the shortcomings that gave rise to them were surely unpleasant to experience at the time, but they instilled in Plimpton a carpe diem sense of adventure and the courage to fight above his weight class (quite literally, in the case of his bout with boxing champ Archie Moore).

It was these qualities, along with a gentlemanly penchant for self-deprecation, that drove Plimpton’s extraordinary, multifaceted career—founding and lifelong editor of the Paris Review, master of “participatory journalism” for Sports Illustrated (which in turn spawned the New Journalism), best-selling author, Hollywood actor, A-list socialite and party host, and, later in life, Orson Welles–style TV pitchman. (YouTube his spots for Intellivision, the Betamax of early home video game systems.) Filmmakers Tom Bean and Luke Poling, who were given full access by Plimpton’s widow to his personal archives, have stitched together copious footage of Plimpton embedded in professional sports and other daredevil situations with his own aural narration and reminiscences to create what could be called a cinematic diary.

Much like the 2011 doc Magic Trip, about Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters’ psychedelic cross-country bus trip, Bean and Poling manage to tell Plimpton’s story using almost entirely vintage audiovisual material. Unlike the Kesey doc (and perhaps because Plimpton had more friends than anyone ever), there are some talking-head interviews with family and colleagues, among them Paris Review cofounder Peter Matthiessen, Gay Talese, Hugh Hefner, Robert Kennedy Jr., first wife Freddy Espy, and widow Sarah Dudley. The interview segments are predictably warm and laudatory, though there are intimations of perennial insecurities (Plimpton never felt he was in the same literary league as his famous novelist friends) and WASPish remoteness (the ultimate partygoer/thrower was, at root, hard to know well).

Some surprises for the casual Plimpton spotter: George’s letter asking hero Ernest Hemingway to do an “Art of Fiction” interview for one of the earliest 1950s issues of the Paris Review resulted in a written response from Papa that said, “Fuck the art of fiction…and fuck talking about it” (he eventually granted the interview); a dazed recording captures Plimpton’s deposition to the LAPD after the assassination of RFK by Sirhan Sirhan (whom Plimpton helped wrestle into submission after the shooting); Plimpton may have dated Jacqueline Bouvier before she became Jacqueline Kennedy and, before marriage, was quite the ladies’ man (though, as Hefner notes, he remained “a class act all the way” in this capacity); neither of his wives liked the frequent parties George threw at their Upper East Side apartment, which doubled as the Paris Review offices; Plimpton thought that playing triangle for Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic was scarier than playing quarterback for the Detroit Lions or goalie for the Boston Bruins.

Plimpton! begins and ends with footage of a nervous George, in pale pink tights, failing (and finally succeeding) at a trapeze maneuver during his stint with the aerial team of the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus. His life was indeed a high-wire act, one that is hard to imagine ever occurring again: Bumbling through brutal athletic confrontations by day, attending black-tie bacchanalias by night, always in nice, if rumpled, clothes; somehow finding the time to write and edit a literary magazine, all amid the turbulent crosscurrents of the age—the Cold War, cocktail culture, the sexual revolution, prominent novelists playing bongos three sheets to the wind in the corner of yet another party. George navigated all this with style, as an old-world dilettante—passable at everything, good at nothing—nothing, perhaps, but being George. That, he was good at. And that was more than enough for the many who loved and admired him.

Plimpton! is now playing at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center in New York. The film opens in Los Angeles on Friday, June 7.