If The Bling Ring exposes the hazards of trying to look like a celebrity when you aren’t one, Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself demonstrates how the impulse to become other people shaped an entire career—and yes, Plimpton’s status as a celebrity in his own right.
This fascinating, spirited documentary explores the work of a man who was many things: founding editor of the Paris Review, party-throwing bon vivant, advertising spokesman and, most significantly, the inventor of “participatory journalism.” The kid who once got kicked out of Exeter became well-known for his eagerness to attempt other professions, then write—and later, broadcast, national TV segments—about the experiences. Plimpton tried everything, from trapeze artistry to stand-up comedy to all manner of athletics, including his most famous stunt: briefly becoming a Detroit Lion, which led to the publication of his best-known book, Paper Lion. No matter what he tried, Plimpton rarely succeeded, which only made his essays, books, and TV shows that much more relatable.
“He was always looking for the perfect moment of abject failure,” explains documentary filmmaker Ric Burns. Some considered his exploits the work of a foolish dilettante. “He was writing in a genre that doesn’t permit greatness,” novelist James Salter says in the film, with more than a hint of snobbery. But many viewers will look at Plimpton and see something admirable, even when he’s wearing a pink leotard and standing high above a big-top crowd, unsure exactly how to fly on a trapeze but willing to take the leap.
Due to a reporting error, the original version of this article misspelled the name of co-director Luke Poling. It has been corrected.