Splashing Through Suburbia with Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer (1968)July 6, 2020 By Go Back
A cautionary suburban Odyssey which measures disillusionment by the pool lengths swum by Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster), The Swimmer is one of the great forgotten head trips of the 1960s. A year before it was released, Hollywood hit countercultural gold with The Graduate, another sly takedown of “the Establishment” which prominently figures a backyard pool party.
In that movie, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) sinks to the bottom like a stone. Not Ned: one afternoon he gets the notion to swim all the way to this suburban California home one backyard pool at a time. But if Benjamin is a largely passive aquarium pet, Ned’s a man determined to move. The question is, is he swimming toward something or away from it?
Based on a short story by John Cheever (the poet laureate of suburban despair), The Swimmer unfolds in both real and dream time. As harsh and crisp as the late afternoon sun is, there’s something looming just beyond the finely trimmed hedges, tinkling cocktails and glib chatter, something not even Lancaster’s formidable grin can make go away. As he plunges his way from pool to pool, encountering at each a reminder of something he’d prefer to forget, the light begins to diminish, the weather turns foul and even the seasons change. When he finally arrives at home, summer itself has become winter, leaving the almost naked Ned stranded on his doorstep like Fred Flintstone pounding after Wilma.
As commercially challenged as The Swimmer was, it would not have been made without Lancaster. Once a top-tier box office draw, by 1968 the actor had functioned for well over a decade as an independent producer. A lifelong liberal, Lancaster pursued projects that would likely have expired at script stage were it not for his participation: The Train, Ulzana’s Raid, Zulu Dawn, Atlantic City, Executive Action, Twilight’s Last Gleaming – risky projects all, and each bearing the star’s unmistakable and indelible stamp. Still, as risk goes, none of them topped The Swimmer, a movie in which a man wearing only bathing trunks swims toward a grim destiny one backyard pool at a time.
And I wasn’t kidding about The Odyssey. Trying only to get home and faced with resentment and disappointment at every plunge, Ned is a middle-aged suburban Odysseus who doesn’t even realize this trip will eventually lead him to the doorstep of his shuttered and abandoned home. With each backyard, Ned confronts his own guilt and regret over a life lived as shallowly as a kiddie pool. He meets people he has forgotten or abandoned, had affairs or disputes with, or just simply lied to. While the vision of suburban hypocrisy was something of a trope by ‘68, it had never taken such a nakedly metaphorical form, each pool measuring not so much distance as Ned’s own spiritual shallowness.
Directed by Frank Perry, the movie plays out as a series of poolside encounters with variously drunk, combative and angry neighbours, each bound to Ned not so much by familiarity as shared pain. That that pain is invariably caused by Ned is finally what pushes him to keep going. He may start swimming on a daft lark, but what drives him is denial and the hope of escape. He’s paddling as fast as he can from himself.
A weird trip of a movie that only grows stranger as it splashes along, The Swimmer was an outlier even by the standards of an industry hell bent on capitalizing on a lucrative but elusive demographic: people hip to the hypocrisy and futility of consumer culture, for whom reality itself was a devalued and overrated concept. To the extent that this enlightenment was often facilitated by hallucinogenics, The Swimmer was like a bad acid trip. However, while it hardly hurt to see it stoned, The Swimmer was every bit as weird when watched straight.
The fact is, however, it was just too weird for just about everybody. Barely released and virtually abandoned, the film sank like a rock and entered an afterlife on TV that started the process of building a cult following. On television, especially if stumbled upon in progress late one stoned evening, the movie proved irresistible. Although hardly a cult item in the order of Bonnie and Clyde, Bullitt, Head or Easy Rider, The Swimmer gradually developed a following that has kept it afloat after all these years.
Burt Lancaster didn’t live to see The Swimmer’s cult rehabilitation, and he always lamented that what he considered one of his best movies had been abandoned and forgotten. Nevertheless, he stayed the course, continuing to make movies that likely wouldn’t have been made without him. Some were hits but most were not, but Lancaster plunged ahead anyway, doggedly making movies happen despite the odds stacked against him. He couldn’t resist the plunge into the unknown, so he just kept diving in. Small wonder a movie about a man swimming for his life captured the actor’s attention. Lancaster loved the deep end.