When Burt Lancaster began his career as an actor, it appeared this was going to be a career in the mold of Errol Flynn or Randolph Scott. In films like The Flame and the Arrow, Jim Thorpe-All American,The Crimson Pirate, Vera Cruz, Ten Tall Men, From Here to Eternity, The Kentuckian, Trapeze, Gunfight at the OK Corral, and Run Silent, Run Deep, Lancaster seemed to personify and embody the American ideal hero.
However, behind those swell guy teeth and that brandished chest was a shrewd actor, who, as he seasoned, made increasingly interesting choices. In the second half of his career, Lancaster often played off that earlier, heroic persona with admirable risk taking. If Elmer Gantry and Seven Days in May might be aptly described as loudly presenting the dirty underbelly of Americana, then The Swimmer intimately one-ups them.
In 1968 director Frank Perry with writer/wife Eleanor Perry adapted John Cheever’s acclaimed allegorical New Yorker short story, The Swimmer, and brilliantly cast the iconic Burt Lancaster as the pathetic hero. The Perrys had previously teamed for the equally disturbingDavid and Lisa (1962) and made quite a splash on the art film circuit. Surprisingly, that film even garnered a couple of Academy Award nominations, which enabled the team to make The Swimmer.
The Swimmer begins on an absurdly bright, sunny day. Ned (Lancaster), the epitome of a tanned, virile, soulless suburbia, decides he is going to enthusiastically embark on a strange, epic, connect-the-dot journey by “swimming” home through the neighborhood swimming pools. He takes along a nubile girl (Janet Langard), but at each pool he encounters facets of his failed life and the crack in his facade slowly begins to expand until the inevitable, tragic conclusion. The physical reality of The Swimmer (a day in Ned’s life) is mere allegory and the allegorical symbolism of Ned’s entire life which is, in fact, the physical realm into which we are drawn.
Lancaster, the sex symbol, is perfection as he superficially pats his neighbors on the back, encounters a discarded mistress, is confronted by his numerous lies, his betrayals, his failure as a husband, father, friend and neighbor. By the time he reaches his own home, his paradigm has altered from cartoon sunshine and forced, surface smiles to despairing rain. When he reaches his porch, he is vulnerable to all the elements which mercilessly come down upon him in all forms, including nature itself. Ned has ultimately realized his hollow state.
Impressively, The Swimmer has a dreamlike, short story, episodic pacing, not at all what is expected in the medium of film, and this adds to its uniqueness. The Swimmer, fragile indeed in its quite odd structure, is a case where casting really counted. It would not have worked without its star.
The Perrys went onto make Last Summer and Diary of a Mad Housewife before divorcing. Separately, the two never equaled the artistic level they achieved together. Lancaster continued to carefully cultivate his screen persona in films like 1900, Moses the Lawgiver, Atlantic City, Local Hero, Rocket Gibraltar and Field of Dreams.