“[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
DIRECTED BY: Frank Perry, Sydney Pollack (uncredited)
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.
- 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, 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)
- 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 [↩]