For National Swimming Pool Day: “The Swimmer”

“When you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about yourself?” asks a 1968 poster for this impossible-to-pigeonhole film. The short answer is, probably not when you’re 20. I was that age when I first watched, or tried to watch the film, and my takeaway was “Yeah, it’s a whole movie where Burt Lancaster swims in a swimming pool!” That of course was a young person’s lack of sympathy for, or understanding of, or interest in, regret. But I saw it a few months ago, and it moved me deeply. In fact I immediately watched it a couple of times more, just to track the film’s beguiling journey.

Based on a 1964 short story by John Cheever, it’s set in an affluent Connecticut suburb, amongst honeycombed cul-de-sacs of upper middle class exponents of the American Dream. Lancaster plays a guy who shows up in his neighbor’s yard, and after some affable chit chat, announces his child-like realization that he could actually make it all the way back to his house just by swimming the swimming pools (running between yards, of course!) He then, astonishes them all by setting off to do so. That may sound like the movie I thought I was seeing when I was 20, but of course that’s not what it is at all. It’s a sort of metaphysical Oddysey, haunting and dreamlike. After all, where is his character coming from? He comes out of the woods wearing only a bathing suit! And as he progresses on his journey, pleasant interactions yield to more fraught ones, as he increasingly encounters people with grudges against him, which he won’t acknowledge, or pretends not to remember. He seems evasive and dishonest about his present condition. He valiantly keeps pretending that things are okay, but his grand project turns sour. At a certain point he hurts his foot, and begins to limp. By the end, on the last leg of his journey, he is at his town’s public swimming pool, where even the local tradesmen are rude and angry with him. As the formerly bright and sunny day turns cloudy and ominous, he limps across a busy, dangerous freeway (still barefoot and in a bathing suit) and makes it back to his old house as a thunderstorm hits. The house is derelict and boarded up and not at all as he has been describing it throughout the film. He’d lost it and his family long ago.

Now, The Swimmer was far from the end of Lancaster himself. The box office powerhouse had over two decades and over two dozen more movies left in his career. What it does is capture him at the precise MIDDLE of his professional career, the moment where the uphill ride will now turn downward, certainly not artistically but physically. Yes he is still an Adonis. Ever the athlete, the former trapeze artist took serious swimming and diving lessons to prep for the movie and he moves in, out, and through pools as though he were Johnny Weissmuller. His physique is almost preposterous — that is, for a man his age. And that’s the note of perfection in this film. Lancaster, the guy the wave crashed on in From Here to Eternity, is now 55 years old. His hair is thin, his face is lined and leathery and now has what was once diplomatically called “character”. And he makes himself vulnerable, by having his aging body on display, throughout the entire movie.

So The Swimmer was an ingenious vehicle for Lancaster at this stage of his career, a brave, risky choice, but the right one. He approached the role with energy and seriousness. The other aspect I love about the film is how natural he seems in this tony milieu, bantering with fellow WASPs about country clubs and tennis courts over cocktails on their patios between swims in their gorgeous blue swimming pools. (I would be astonished btw if the creators of Mad Men didn’t STEEP themselves in this movie). Lancaster seems so comfortable in the center of all this but it’s an illusion created by the actor. Yes, he is White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, all those things, but he’s really Anglo-Irish from the streets of East Harlem. His real-life environment (had he not been a movie star) would be something like that armored car driver he played in Criss Cross (1949). A big lummox, a working stiff. A good looking one, sure, but they have those back in the neighborhood.

Lancaster was very involved with all aspects of The Swimmer, but there were several other forces at work as well. It was produced by Sam Spiegel, and made by the husband-and-wife team of Frank and Eleanor Perry, with re-shoots and new scenes by Sydney Pollack, who also directed Lancaster in the western The Scalphunters that year. The Perrys were known for small, “artistic” films based on works of fiction, with Eleanor as writer, Frank as director. Frank had been nominated for an Oscar for their first collaboration, David and Lisa (1961), about a pair of inmates at a sanitarium who fall in love. Their follow-up Ladybug Ladybug (1963) was also critically acclaimed, and they were also responsible for a 1966 television production of Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory. The Perrys seemed the perfect team to make this movie, and it certainly seems consonant with the rest of their body of work. Thoughtful, psychological, dream-like, intimate. Yet there seems to have been some ill-defined creative differences with Spiegel, the producer, and with Lancaster, the star. The Perrys had been used to working with unknowns or up-and-coming stars of tomorrow, people like Keir Dullea, Janet Margolin, William Daniels, Estelle Parsons, and Nancy Marchand. Geraldine Page had been the first major star they had worked with. So steering someone as willful and confident and full of his own ideas as Lancaster apparently proved a chore for Frank. Can you imagine giving Lancaster a direction, then looking up at his squinting, unsmiling face telling you, “I don’t think I want to play it that way.”?

Yes it really happened. Joan Rivers played a straight, dramatic part in “The Swimmer”

And for reasons that seem vague, Sam Spiegel was dissatisfied with a lot of the movie as shot. In ordinary cases, I might chalk up such an attitude on the part of a producer to philistinism. But Spiegel had produced Orson Welles’ The Stranger, not to mention The African Queen, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia. He had known much critical acclaim, and deserved it. But he was, in the end, a Hollywood guy, and I get the feeling that the Perrys’ informal, intimate, small scale approach threw him for a loop. “What is this thing? Is this a movie? Will people go see this?” he was probably asking. Spiegel reportedly showed the film to other people to get their take on it, including Eliza Kazan, with whom he had worked on On the Waterfront, and whose wife, Barbara Loden was in The Swimmer. Despite the fact that Perry had not even finished shooting the movie, Speigel had the more commercially oriented Sydney Pollack, who had mostly worked in television, brought in. Some new transitional scenes of Burt moving from yard to yard were shot. Pollack replaced several cast members and reshot their scenes. Loden was replaced by Janice Rule, Sallie Gracie with Kim Hunter, Billy Dee Williams with Bernie Hamilton etc. Fortunately lots of excellect supporting players from Perry’s version remained: including the young Joan Rivers (in her first film role after the best-forgotten Hootenanny-a-go-go), Cornelia Otis Skinner, Marge Champion, Star Trek’s Diana Muldaur, Jan Miner (Madge from the Palmolive commercials), and John Cheever himself in a cameo.

However it happened, the resulting film succeeds as an oddly haunting experience. While sparing in actual camera trickery, it feels so vividly like a dream. There is something about the way it shifts from the recognizable to the just-off kilter. Something is wrong and we can’t quite put our figure on it. The dialogue is vague in a way that is both true to the politesse of well-heeled WASPs trying to avoid confrontation, but also to the liminal world of the subconscious. Our anxiety rises incrementally as people go from friendly to cold to hostile. And Lancaster, whom we are so primed to find likeable, gradually reveals uglier sides: he hits on a young babysitter, it emerges that he had an affair with an actress, he’s had shady business dealings, he’s lost other people’s money. But he also seems to want to redeem himself. He teaches a kid to swim. He has kind and encouraging words for almost everyone he encounters, and so very bravely tries to put on this heroic, cheerful front, as it becomes clearer and clearer that it is a delusion. Like Ulysses (or Dorothy) he is striving so hard to get home. When he arrives, he learns that it isn’t there, and hasn’t been for a long time, and he’s always known that. We’re always trying to do that, aren’t we? To get back to the happy place we were at before we screwed up this or that or everything? A place that maybe never existed anyway?

So it’s an older person’s movie, with an ending as bleak as Vertigo‘s, as far from a ‘completion” as you will find in a Beckett play. It was, understandably, not a major hit in its day, but has steadily grown a fan base over the decades. It nags and tortures me like a sad song, and I aim to watch it many, many more times. (Speaking of songs, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that The Swimmer is the first movie to be scored by Marvin Hamlisch; his music goes a long way toward reinforcing the film’s emotional impact.)

BTW, there is a terrific 2014 documentary about the making of The Swimmer, with valuable interviews with several key people involved. I watched it in sections on Youtube. A lot of the interviews need trimming, but I gratefully learned tons.