"Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself": Journalism as Participatory Sport

George Plimpton: A portrait of the artist as a pretty bad football player.
George Plimpton: A portrait of the artist as a pretty bad football player.

"A collector of experiences," as one TV newscaster put it, George Plimpton was the participatory journalist par excellence — where excellence includes frequent, eloquent public failure. As Tom Bean and Luke Poling's posthumous documentary reminds us, the only thing better than seeing Plimpton step in as the amusingly unqualified Detroit Lions quarterback or Boston Bruins goalie or what-have-you was later reading his literary findings on the matter. His great way with stunty bon-vivant showmanship made WASP privilege seem almost subversive. Like light-heavyweight knockout king Archie Moore, who went a few rounds with Plimpton in 1959, Bean and Poling's movie has a touchingly sportsmanlike way of pulling its punches. (George did get a bloody nose in that fight, but after the sparring it was all smiles.) Some retrospective psychologizing from fellow literary luminaries suggests Plimpton was perpetually making up for his Exeter expulsion (no worries; Harvard took him anyway) or yearning for fatherly approval, be it from his own dad or from Papa Hemingway. Mostly we're reminded that professional amateur Plimpton, a fellow of such close proximity to the Kennedys that he helped pry the gun from Sirhan Sirhan's hand, was at least Renaissance Man enough to hold simultaneous posts at Sports Illustrated and The Paris Review. The latter, which he co-founded, was of course his darling, evidently more so than his first wife, who's on hand here to rein in any hero-worship, and maybe even more than the kids, who remember him fondly but also remember being kept awake by wee-hours writers' soirees. Well, those did seem like some great parties. As an editor, he launched impressive careers; as a dabbler, he illuminated them, gamely surveying those highly skilled communal rituals in which, as he shrewdly observed, "the outsider did not belong, and there was comfort in that being proved."

 
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