THE SWIMMER, 1968
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Janice Rule, Janet Landgard, Joan Rivers
Ned Merill decides to swim his way home through his neighbor's swimming pools. Though he tries to paint a pretty picture, things in Ned's life are less than idyllic and his venere crumbles as the day goes on.
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Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) is a middle-aged ad executive who seems to be successful and popular with his neighbors. Upon returning home from an extended absence, he realizes that the swimming pools in his community create a sort of river that ends at his own house and he decides that he will swim home through all of them. At first Ned seems like a perfectly normal man; he is good-looking, successful, maybe a tad immature, but well-liked. It soon becomes apparent, however, that something about Ned isnít quite right . On his journey, he gains the companionship, for a short time, with a teenage girl named Julie
(Janet Landgard) who had babysat for his daughters when they were younger; after she admits to having had a crush on him as a girl, he scares her off when he tries to kiss her. As the day goes on, and we see Ned interact with his neighbors and friends, it becomes increasingly clear that thing in Nedís life is not as ideal as he would like them to seem. The closer Ned gets to his own home, the more openly hostile his neighbors are to him, including an actress (Janice Rule) with whom he had a long time affair and local businessmen who confront him over money that he owes. After the long journey, he finally makes it home only to finally realize that his entire world has shattered.
Based on a 1964 short story by John Cheever, the plot of The Swimmer is deceptively simple. On the surface, it is just about a man doing something that is a little out of the ordinary. But as the film moves forward it becomes more and more obvious that this is not a simple story. Ned is not the man he appears to be. His once promising life has ended in failure and humiliation. What exactly happened to Ned is never explicitly stated. However, we do know that he married a rich activist, and that he cheated on her with one of his neighbors. Most of what he know about his past is merely implied by people making vague references to the fact that he has been away for a time, perhaps around two years, and that something had happened at his job. Whenever Ned mentions his wife and daughters he gets suspicious looks from his neighbors; perhaps this is because, as he goes from pool to pool, his daughters, according to NedĎs story, keep getting younger and younger. At one point they are teenagers, but when Ned comes across a boy of around ten at one of the pools, he tells the boy that he should come play with his daughters who Ned says are around the same age.
Ned often seems stuck in the past, and whenever confronted with reality he has an emotional break down. In the scene where he attempts to seduce Julie, he seems to be attempting to recreate a moment between him and his wife when they were the same age. When Julie rejects him, it is a turning point in the film. For the first time, Ned seems aware of who he really is. In another scene later in the film, Ned crashes a party and sees a hot dog wagon he built for his daughters. He becomes adamant that it was stolen from him, even though the neighbors say it was bought at an auction. Once again confronted with the reality of his situation, Ned breaks down.
Burt Lancaster is the perfect actor for this part. Despite being in his mid-fifties at the time the film was made, he was in excellent physical shape. This contributes heavily toward the way the audience initially sizes him up. He looks like a man who is on top of the world. Lancaster was an actor of great physicality, but he also balanced it with an ability to make himself extremely vulnerable. The combination of these two traits are what makes his performance in The Swimmer so outstanding, as this character must, at first, come across as invincible, and then ultimately prove himself to be anything but. In a career spanning over forty years, including four nominations and one win for the Best Actor Academy Award, this is one of Burt Lancasterís best performances.
The Swimmer is a scathing indictment of the American dream, embodied by a man who had everything, the big house, the wife, the children, but who lost it through his own selfish actions. The moral of the film is that nothing is ever what it seems. The American dream may be the ideal, but once it is achieved, what then? Ned could not be satisfied with what he had; he overspent, cheated on his wife and let his children grow up to be brats. Of course, once he falls, there is nobody there to pick him up. His so-called friends and neighbors either pity him or hate him, but none of them offer to help him. The Swimmer is a sad and haunting film, and one whose message will stay with you for long after that final credits role.