If nothing else, George Plimpton’s life defined a particularly American kind of illustriousness. Though bred into the uppermost rind of New England privilege, educated at Harvard, and as a result blessed with an unnatural breadth of socio-geographic fluidity, Plimpton rejected intellectual leisure in favor of humiliating rigor. Under the pretense of journalistic curiosity he became virtually anything, from quarterback to symphony percussionist to safari guide to hockey goalie, and then confessed in print how equally poor he performed the duties of each. Gonzo nonfiction certainly owes a debt to his “don’t write it ’til you try it” credo, but Plimpton was more accurately a professional cross-milieu interloper—a curious blueblood who, not unlike the characters in Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, somewhat redeemed himself from his pampered background by flaunting his capacity for everyman-ish failure.
The only uncertain detail in all of this is whether Plimpton’s literature backs up the silliness of his stunts—of whether his prose was worth all that trouble. Tom Bean and Luke Poling’s Plimpton!: Starring George Plimpton as Himself is rightfully less than certain of the quality of its subject’s output, and no potential excuse for Plimpton’s occasionally clunky wordplay is left unmentioned. Naturally, the Oedipal consideration comes first. As it happens, Plimpton was constantly revolting against and attempting to win the approval of a less than loving lawyer father at the start of his life, a dynamic which reverberated throughout the author’s various relationships with other male writers to whom he subordinated himself. (In the film, Plimpton transitions swiftly from writing letters to “Daddy” to writing letters to “Papa” Hemingway, an early mentor.) Then, as the documentary’s focus shifts from Plimpton’s psychology to his social life, his questionable publication record becomes a matter of sacrifice: Content and money for The Paris Review, an influential periodical founded in part by Plimpton, always came first, leaving him little time to work on the Great American Novel.
Throughout this broad-ranging apologia we’re treated to a wealth of private film reels and photos, most of which suggest how continually ensconced Plimpton was within the political and literary cliques of the northeastern U.S.; a not insignificantly tragic interlude shows the writer witnessing Bobby Kennedy’s murder after growing close to the senator’s family and presidential campaign. But it’s a long way down from these extroverted peaks to the more intimate valleys the film seeks to investigate, such as Plimpton’s divorce from his first wife and self-pity over having become a national blooper celebrity, and there’s ultimately very little offered to hold these tonally dissonant episodes together. Decades inexplicably pass between hard cuts without explanation; essentially unrelated topics like Plimpton’s penchant for late-night parties and his passion for discovering new authors are spoken of in the same breath. This looseness adequately portrays Plimpton as an inwardly conflicted figure, but it fails to make much of a case for the man’s legacy outside of The Paris Review’s still-noticeable brand. And perhaps necessarily, the directors ignore how outwardly conflicted and petty Plimpton was capable of being, despite the fact that a movie chronicling his legendary pissing match with—and character assassination of—Truman Capote may have cleaved closer to celebrity’s gossipy heart.