Tag Archives: Frank Perry

177. THE SWIMMER (1968)

“[The Swimmer needed] someone like a Fellini or a Truffaut. It needed some kind of strange, weird approach to capture the audience and make them realize that, in a way, they were not looking at anything real.”–Burt Lancaster

“What the hell does this mean and who the hell would want to make it?“–Unnamed studio executive’s response to Eleanor Perry’s screenplay for The Swimmer

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Frank Perry, Sydney Pollack (uncredited)

FEATURING: , , Janet Landgard

PLOT: Ned Merrill, a fifty something suburbanite, begins his day with a strange, simple goal of swimming  home through a “river of  pools.” Christened “Lucinda’s River,” after Ned’s wife, our protagonist connects the dots from swimming pool to swimming pool,  speaking to neighbors along the way who reveal a little more about his character. Ned’s odyssey inexorably drains his illusions, rendering his truth an authentic nightmare.

Still from The Swimmer (1968)
BACKGROUND:

  • Although highly athletic, Burt Lancaster did not know how to swim and prepared for the role with several months of swimming lessons.
  • The Swimmer was the dream project of husband-and-wife team Frank and Eleanor Perry, with Frank directing Eleanor’ s adaptation of John Cheever’s short story. Fortunately for them, star Burt Lancaster got behind the project. Although the project was greenlit in the experimental sixties, Columbia Studio and producer Sam Spiegel were skeptical. Spiegel could not grasp the material, and constant fights with Frank Perry lead to the director being fired. Perry was replaced by Sydney Pollack, whose feel for the narrative lacked Perry’s poetic eccentricity. Luckily, Eleanor Perry was on set to the end to counteract Speigel’s clueless demands, one of which included asking for a happy ending. In the end Spiegel had his name removed from the film.
  • According to the documentary The Story of the Swimmer, one of the primary reasons Frank Perry was fired and half his scenes were reshot was a dispute over a scene with actress Barbara Loden. Lancaster and Loden apparently got caught up in their love scene in a pool, and down came Loden’s bathing suit top. Perry wanted the scene intact. Unknown to the director, Spiegel was a good friend to the actress’ husband, Elia Kazan. True to his nature[1], Kazan told the Perrys he was okay with the scene, and then double crossed them by going to Speigel, demanding the director be fired. Spiegel’s reputation was almost as bad as Kazan’s and Loden expected her dismissal, which came when she was replaced by Janice Rule.
  • Spiegel promised to be available on set for Lancaster, but predictably broke his promise, which resulted in numerous problems, including Columbia prematurely pulling the plug on The Swimmer. An additional day of shooting was needed and Lancaster was forced to finance the final shoot out of his own pocket.
  • A young Joan Rivers makes her first cinematic appearance in a small role as a rich suburbanite. Surprisingly, she is quite good. Later, Rivers complained that Lancaster required numerous takes and made her character “unsympathetic,” which naturally inspires a smile from the rest of us.
  • Author John Cheever makes a cameo as a passed-out drunk.
  • This is the first film score by Marvin Hamlisch. Producer Spiegel gave him the gig after hearing him play piano at a party. Hamlisch was still in college at the time.
  • Despite all the production tensions, The Swimmer opened to good reviews, but predictably bombed at the box office. Its financial failure succeeded in quickly cementing a solid cult status.
  • The Swimmer was released in a poor-quality DVD in 2003 that quickly went out of print, and the movie was essentially unavailable on home video until Grindhouse Releasing’s 2014 Blu-ray/DVD edition.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Ned, coming upon an empty pool and a boy who is afraid to swim, believes his”project” has been ruined. Ever the innovator, the swimmer, with young cadet by his side, takes a pantomime dip. They breast-stroke, dog-paddle, and wade their way through a barren basin. Allegories abound in The Swimmer and there is truth, wanted or not, to be found in the cliche “out of the mouths of babes.” This scene is obvious, and in other hands, it would have been too much so. Yet, with assured direction and acting, it makes for a potent vignette here.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The weirdness of The Swimmer is contextual, as opposed to visual or on the surface. Taking place in the course of a day, the film is a phantasmagoric metaphor for an entire life. The final, devastating scene, though expected, will hauntingly linger like the film itself does. The Swimmer’s composition resembles a short story, and is not at all what we expect in a film. The movie beautifully breaks the rules, with David L. Quaid’s cinematography and Marvin Hamlisch’s score enhancing the strange, impressionistic quality. 


Original trailer for The Swimmer

COMMENTS: With its wholly odd, even fragile structure and troublesome shooting, The Swimmer‘s success was dependent on the right actor in the Continue reading 177. THE SWIMMER (1968)

  1. Kazan’s reputation had already been cemented when he was the first to name names for the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, destroying many lives for merely having leftist affiliations. Kazan never regretted his actions and publicly stood by his behavior []

GUEST REVIEW: THE SWIMMER (1968)

The Swimmer has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Comments on this post have been closed. Please read the official Certified Weird entry for The Swimmer and post any future comments about the film there.

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 ArrowJim 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 disturbing David 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.

Still from The Swimmer (1968)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.  Unfortunately, The Swimmer is out of print and even when it was briefly available, Columbia disrespectfully released it an a cheapo presentation.  (NOTE 2/12/10: Astute reader MCD tipped us off to the fact that The Swimmer is available for download from Amazon for $9.99). Still, it’s a rarity in being a film that actually lives up to and surpasses its reputation.

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.

OCTOBER 31ST FRINGE VIEWING LIST

Here’s an alternative seasonal viewing list for the weird, that goes beyond the usual vampire/zombie/demon/slasher fare (although some favorite characters make appearances).

1. Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle 3 (2002) . Only the third of Barney’s epic Cremaster Cycle, made over an eight year period, has made it’s way to any type of video release, which is criminally unfortunate. The Guggenheim Museum, who financed it, exhibits the Cycle and describes it as a  “a self-enclosed aesthetic system consisting of five feature-length films that explore the processes of creation.”  Trailers are available on the Cremaster website; www.cremaster.net. The third movie is available via Amazon and other outlets, albeit at expensive prices [Ed. Note: the version of Cremaster 3 that’s commercially available is not actually the full movie, but a 30 minute excerpt that’s still highly collectible as the only Cremaster footage released].  The Cremaster Cycle is complex, challenging, provocative and not for the attention span-challenged.

Still from Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002)2. Guy Maddin‘s Dracula-Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002). Guy’s Dracula ballet, choreographed to Mahler.  Just when you though nothing more could be done with this old, old story.  Of course, we are talking Mr. Maddin here.

3. Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968). Bergman’s ode to German Expressionism has been labeled his sole horror film. Hour is a further continuation of frequent Bergman themes—the defeated artist, loss of God, nihilism—and stars Bergman regular Max Von Sydow.  Some find this dull and slow, others find it mesmerizing and nightmarish.

4. Roman Polanski‘s The Tenant (1976) returned this consummate craftsman back to the territory of Repulsion and remains one of his best films.  Polanski is now facing extradition charges for having sexual relations with a willing, underage girl thirty years Continue reading OCTOBER 31ST FRINGE VIEWING LIST