The documentary "Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself" opens with the WASPy, white-haired, lanky Plimpton twirling on a trapeze in a pink leotard and tights. It was 1971, and Plimpton was doing his investigative journalist routine, throwing himself into lives unlike his own.
Screening at the Roxie Theater this weekend, "Plimpton!" is a charming portrait of the dashing man who dubbed himself the "universal amateur." As a journalist, Plimpton performed with philharmonics; fought boxing champions; played professional football, baseball and hockey; romped with Playboy bunnies; and shot movies with John Wayne. He captivated by documenting extraordinary lives through the unstudied, everyman experience.
His breakthrough book from 1966, "Paper Lion," documented his stint as a quarterback with the Detroit Lions and was a best-seller in its first week, pushing Winston Churchill's memoir down two notches.
Plimpton also famously edited The Paris Review, a magazine he co-founded with friends Peter Matthiessen and Harold L. Hume in 1953. It also put Plimpton in a position to host Manhattan's most enviable cocktail parties for nearly 50 years. One 1963 photo shows Plimpton laughing in a packed room that also included Matthiessen, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Ralph Ellison, Mario Puzo, William Styron and others.
Using archived audio recordings, filmmakers Tom Bean and Luke Poling turn Plimpton into a posthumous narrator, while archival footage rolls across the screen.
The party images — including a naked girl stepping out of a bear suit — are wonderful, as are shots of Plimpton hustling for The Paris Review, which operated from his New York apartment until his death in 2003. He talks into the phone in a room stuffed with books, a can of Miller by the phone.
Interviews with his widow, Sarah; his first wife, Freddy; his children; and countless celebrities and luminaries — including James Salter ("Perhaps unfairly, I thought of him as a dilettante") and Hugh Hefner ("He was a class act") — pepper the film.
His glittering social life included the Kennedys, which sadly led to him witnessing Robert F. Kennedy's assassination and wrestling the gun from Sirhan Sirhan. He never spoke about it publicly, though "Plimpton!" uses the audio of his police deposition.
"Plimpton!" is intimate and informative, remembering Plimpton as a man whose ferocious curiosity, zest for life and dedication to the written word made him one of the 20th century's brightest sparks.
REVIEWPlimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself
Starring George Plimpton, Sarah Dudley Plimpton, Freddy Plimpton
Written and directed by Tom Bean, Luke Poling
Running time 1 hour, 27 minutes