For decades, film critics and academics interested in the classical Hollywood cinema have been dutifully studying the canonized big stars—Cary Grant, Garbo, the Hepburns, Bogart and Bacall, Dietrich and Crawford and Monroe—while downplaying one of the most highly varied and fascinating careers of any studio actor: Burt Lancaster. Now, New York’s Film Forum is giving us a great excuse to revisit this actor’s towering body of work—emphasis on “body.” From big-name classics like Louis Malle’s Atlantic City (1980) and John Frankenheimer’s Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) to little-known masterpieces like Carol Reed’s Trapeze (1956) and Luchino Visconti’s late decadent chamber drama Conversation Piece (1974), a meaty, healthy range of Burt is on display for the next four weeks, between July 19 to August 15.
Serious film talk has always been focused on the elements that make up the overall experience of the film—whether it’s authorial intent, camera movement, and montage as the forger of Meaning, the trade-offs between space, ideology, and character—at the expense of both the most and least visible element of film narratives: the actor’s body. With Lancaster, he gave us hardly anything to work with but his body—and what a gift this was. He offered up a toothy grin, a hearty belly laugh, clenched biceps, a relaxed pendulating of the arms as he walked, the ten-out-of-ten acrobat’s body—all came together to form a body that became a never-depleted specimen of studies in the banality of evil, viz. patriotism (Judgment at Nuremberg, 1961), Italian decadence (the Visconti and Bertolucci epics), Connecticut decadence, whiteness (The Swimmer, 1968), unscrupulous power-lusting in the big city (Alexander Mackendrick’s and Clifford Odets’s Sweet Smell of Success, 1957), and the bloody legacies of America’s wars against indigenous peoples here and abroad (Ulzana’s Raid, 1972). But Burt’s was also a body that was also centered in the art of daredevil circus acts (The Crimson Pirate, 1952; Trapeze, 1956; The Gypsy Moths, 1969), in the pure rush of seeing bodies in delightful motion, bodies kissing, bodies drenched in shadows and flirting with fairy-tale death (Jacques Tourneur’s The Flame and the Arrow, 1950, on a double-bill with The Crimson Pirate).
Lancaster’s intense physicality is a bulging fact full of grace. There’s a three-dimensionality to his body that threatens to break the impossible line dividing his space and ours, as well as the line between theater and film. This tough kid raised in East Harlem, who started out his career as a circus acrobat before stumbling into movies, was always on, presenting himself to an audience that he always imagined was out there perpetually invested in every sweep of his hand. He started off playing hapless noir chumps: the unlucky Swede of The Killers (1946; Robert Siodmak’s handsomely staged if creaky adaptation of Hemingway’s short “The Killers”) who is gunned down not more than three minutes into Lancaster’s first major screen appearance, and the idiot lover caught in a nasty Criss-Cross (1948, also Siodmak)1. He based his career on variations of the body, and he had dazzling range in terms of what he could make his body signify: He imperilled it in swashbucklers filled with pirates and Robin Hoods, it was battered and pummeled in a series of “last westerns ever” conscious of the fact that they were trying to be the Last Western Ever (the mean, vicious Aldrich films Apache and Vera Cruz of 1954, which both play on a double-feature; Ulzana’s Raid of 1971), and it was tight, tense, unbearably coiled in films where he played villains whose chief quality of menace was their refusal to move their lips even a millimeter (Sweet Smell of Success, 1957, where his gossip columnist wields an obscene amount of power over New York intelligentsia, such that his body is as frozen and ungenerous as his words). Later, Lancaster’s body became a beacon of hope and abuse for Italian Marxists as The Last Grace Note, a reminder of what was being lost (for better and for worse) with the rise of machine fascism and the end of the classical studio era in Hollywood.
There are perhaps three Lancasters: Smilin’ Burt, Bottled-Up Burt, and Death Drive Burt. Smilin’ Burt is the Burt of circus films, action films, and fun capers in which he plays American spinners of hokum, slick salesman types who you can’t tell are tricksters, master manipulators of emotions. Note the ultimate form of Smilin’ Burt in the slambang opening of The Rainmaker (1956): a frighteningly direct address to the viewer in which he pops his mad bug eyes for milliseconds at a time, splaying his fingers as if he were hexing us. His unspoken lesson is that we are always performing, so it’s best to embrace that presentational, all-surface aspect of humanity, best to smash any myth of interiority by embracing garish exteriors. Naturally, Smilin’ Burt could be malicious and sour, as seen in his Oscar-winning, high-velocity performance in Elmer Gantry (1960), in which he plays a sweating pig of a fake preacher, a put-on pious act of volcanic energy that fools the whole white elephant-loving town into which he saddles—fooling everyone, that is, except Shirley Jones’s ostracized prostitute, the film’s sole underplayer and a steady termitic worker of the highest quality.
Bottled-Up Burt is coiled maniacally; he hardly moves, he prefers to brood, and there’s always the sense that were his springs unsprung, he’d lash out in a violent blitz of potential energy turned suddenly kinetic. Perhaps the definitive version of Bottled-Up Burt comes in Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957), in which the menace of Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker is communicated entirely through the movement of his hands. Focus on Burt’s hands when you see Sweet Smell of Success again—at the Film Forum, on a Criterion DVD, or wherever. What he does with those hands is a masterclass in acting all in itself: how to conjure as an actor through pure physical gesture—or, in this case, the total restraint of gesture, its shunning of the loud, sweeping Elmer Gantry moves. Hunsecker never takes away his hands from his sides. They’re always stuffed deep into his pockets—whether in his dress pants, his winter coat, even his bathrobe. He only takes them out to make crisp, emphatic gestures: He often jabs his finger into the lapel of Tony Curtis’s punk upstart publicity-agent, which is a common Lancaster technique whenever he gets angry (his fingers form an emphatic fist when he’s futilely trying to convince a snooty Paul Scofield Nazi not to shoot Michel Simon’s hell-raising conductor in The Train) or chummy (like pals, he jabs and jabs a homeless Scottish man on the beach in Local Hero, overjoyed that there’s another person who totally gets his obsession with Virgos, Leos, and the stars). Burt will also use his hands to do very strong, stubby, simple business while handling objects; the most vivid Sweet prop is, of course, Hunsecker’s little notebook monogrammed with his name, which he uses as a sort of Death Note talisman in which he writes the names of his enemies. It’s Burt’s bottled-in energy that gives him his corrupt power. Like the hands of Lancaster, J.J. never has to move to get what he wants: his face and voice and texts are plastered everywhere, and they carry across miles.
Then there’s Death Drive Burt, on display in Brute Force (1947), Apache, Trapeze, The Train (1964), Swimmer, Castle Keep (1969), and Gypsy Moths. He suggests an out-of-control locomotive like the kind that he’s trying to stop in John Frankenheimer’s The Train—the train becomes an allegory for the Death Drive—its function seems to be to purely go, no matter what obstacles crosses its (Burt’s) path—the rush and process of achieving the goal overwhelms whatever the goal is. In these kinds of obsessive roles, Lancaster does a variation of the classic Sisphyean image: Death Drive Burt is not about whether he’ll stop the train, but about the unthinking expectation that there will always be trains to stop. He will go to manic lengths to continue his goalless drive—often to fatal, even suicidal lengths. All of the flashbacks in Jules Dassin’s Brute Force (the least successful element of an otherwise masterwork) are strained attempts to naturalize the Death Drive. Lancaster must break out of prison. It’s less clear how he will survive once he’s out. All that matters is the breaking-out process. It’s a totally existentialist personality that Lancaster brought to a constant perfection over the course of his forty years as an actor. “Whenever ya got men in prison, they want to get out. You and me. Out.” Death Drive Burt manifests the abstract desire of humans to get out of their current hopeless situations—situations that promulgate to the end of time—desires that continue long after the person has been killed or maimed or defeated.
The late Lancaster performances have an unparalleled lion’s regality. From his big lug Texas oil man who just wants to be left alone to contemplate the stars in Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero (1983) to his retired American professor who wants to be left alone by a proto-mother! family of decrepit decadents in Visconti’s Conversation Piece, Lancaster, in his later years, searches for a hub of quiet amid the maelstrom that modernity represents. He takes on a dialogical character much like the Marxist aristocratic contradictions of one of Lancaster's favorite directors, Visconti: He’s not the wave of the future anymore in these late performances (as he was, cruelly and brashly, in Aldrich’s Vera Cruz), but neither is he quaintly conservative, ornery or hard-shelled like later Eastwood or Wayne. Visconti never resolves the pre-Leninist Marxist dialectic that is fraught with never-ending contradictions, and neither does Lancaster in regards to his complicated star image. Lancaster proves himself a tremendous risk-taker, as evidenced by the fact that he’s comfortable being harmonized as an object among objects in the ensemble of the European Minnelli—a kind of half-democratizing, half-kingly effect that Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) expertly swirls around.
Maybe Burt's willingness to be so multi-faceted, so un-pinnable, was the quality that attracted the 1960s Italian auteurs Visconti and Bertolucci to him. He was made the anchor in their essays on decadence: martyred in The Leopard, mocked in Conversation Piece, and both martyred and mocked in 1900 (1976; Bertolucci’s 200-plus-minute opus is not playing as part of the Lancaster retrospective, though that figures: Film Forum only recently played a fantastic restoration of it in two parts back in February). What died with Classical Hollywood (somewhere around the time of Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town , Godard’s Contempt , and Visconti’s The Leopard) was similar to the kind of sureness and moral certainty that the aristocracy before the Risorgimento (before the unification of Italy) had going for it. The idea of decadence is so important to Marxism, since it signals the advanced putrefaction of modern-day capitalism and of its dying culture, as well as the dismissal by the new breed of capitalists of the remnants of a memory that they’re only too keen to forget. As Gramsci wrote in his Prison Notebooks, “the old is dying, the new cannot be born. In this interregnum, various morbid symptoms appear”; what Lancaster defies, then, is the morbidity of the clergy, the new government, the bourgeoisie who usurps the hereditary ruling elites while realizing that “if things are to stay as they are, things will have to change.”2 In this context, Lancaster is more than happy to lend his image to being the epitome of memory, grace, and poise against the incoming waves of mediocrity, hypocrisy, and even-more-violent opportunism—a fight for the future that he realizes he no longer has the stamina to wage, nor does he care to. Burt leaves the struggle to the next generation, and God help them.
What lends scope and depth to the Burt Lancaster performance in my favorite of his films, The Swimmer (1968—it deservedly has the most screenings of any of the Lancaster works in the series), is the calculated way in which Burt degrades his body over the course of its 95 minutes. Almost every feature in Burt’s Delsartian actor’s toolbox—smile, body, “nothing so considered as self-confidence”3—fails him and his character: a white upper-class suburbanite who comes to gradually realize his life is as shallow as the pools in his Connecticut county that make up the “torrential headwaters of the Lucinda Rivah.”
“I’m swimmin’ home”: This is the excuse Ned “Neddy” Merrill gives people whom he thinks care about his obsessive mission to return home in the most roundabout and showboating way possible. In fact, as the film moves through its haphazard blackout-sketch structure, we come to realize that the house of Neddy is empty, and that there is no home in 1968 for Burt’s humiliated body. Burt is out-of-time (c.f., The Leopard), while Neddy has been left behind by time. In an intense physical performance, Lancaster is shockingly hip to playing a slimy, creepy shell of a man, an odious martini-sipping hotshot who jumps into old flames’ pools and expects neighbors to shower him with confetti to celebrate the six-pack he’s maintained, but they haven’t, for twenty-plus years. That six-pack starts to gelatinize, thanks to the four-way collaboration between actor Lancaster, author John Cheever, screenwriter Eleanor Perry, and her husband, director Frank Perry—who come together to create one of the most gloriously bonkers, ambitious, and unique movies Hollywood ever accidentally greenlit. (It’s a gutsy, baroque studio masterwork of the 1960s in the vein of Blake Edwards’s The Great Race , Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde , John Boorman’s Point Blank , Richard Lester’s Petulia , Francis Ford Coppola’s and Shirley Knight’s The Rain People .) They all stage a perverse melodrama in which Burt’s fantastically fit body becomes an allegorical arena, the losing fight of a small-minded sect of white suburbia against their own passions, phobias, and petty hatreds. Lancaster knows this territory well, knows the character John Cheever described in his 1964 New Yorker story, the kind of a guy who loves to “give the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack.”4 He is personally invested in bringing this Swimmer to life—which lends the performance its tactility.
Lancaster’s big toothy grin, one of his key star features, is sapped of its Smilin’ Burt purity. Before The Swimmer, all Burt had to do was flash his smile and the worlds of his films achieved some kind of rare harmony, no matter how kiddish (Crimson Pirate) or violent (Aldrich’s Vera Cruz and Apache). In Kate Buford’s 2000 biography of Lancaster, she relates an anecdote on the set of The Train that perfectly illustrates this Lancasterian overdependence on the smile: “The first day of shooting…when [original Train director Arthur] Penn kept trying to get Lancaster to ‘show some kind of vulnerability and emotion’ in the first scene with [Michel] Simon, the star finally turned to the director and said, ‘Here, I’ll give it the Grin.’”5 This very hubris—that all it takes is a flash of a pearly white keyboard for people to like you, your actual character be damned—transfers over to his Swimmer performance, but with the added kick that Lancaster, in Cheever’s world, is explicitly conscious of the smile’s shortcomings. Burt’s smile typically has a boyish warmth to it, like the warmth emitted by a dear childhood friend. In The Swimmer, the smile has soured into egomania, control on the order of Sweet Smell, a smile in which Burt flexes his privilege and moneyed capacity to cap each tooth in an enamel Wall of Jericho. The smile works in the first half-hour of the film, the unstable section where it is unclear whether the film is serious or just a bit of kitsch à la a Coca-Cola commercial. In this context, the smile becomes part of a landscape of “dahlings,” free-flowing booze, the Get Out grins of black servants and 99.99.99% non-solid-matter pool water (and no chlorine). These little details pile up so much that they become nauseating, which is secretly the Perrys’ goal: get us so far into this deadened suburban muck that we must claw as far away from it as possible.
Within this self-critical milieu, the Burt smile becomes something suspicious, something to keep away from, a sign which seems perfect yet which, upon further inspection, is as overworked as the faux-freedom represented by the hurdles and horse-running sequences (peak camp flourishes). Unlike in previous Lancaster features where he smiles often, there is never a shred of warmth; we’re always outside the smile, looking at it as a zoo animal. Frank Perry’s camera takes us up close to Lancaster’s face—almost too close—so that we can see every pore on his face, every scar. The film is nothing if not a critical survey of the Lancaster face’s naggingly perfect surface—slowly taken apart by consent of the actor himself. It’s false to think that the Cheever milieu and the Eleanor Perry screenplay is providing all the textual funk of the Swimmer’s central allegory (i.e., the fall and decline of the suburban empire). Much of the allegory is provided by Lancaster’s self-presentation of his body, those actorly microcosmic gestures which we pick up on as cinema watchers.
The smile is a stellar symbol of Burt’s body, the real point of obsession. With each new pool swum by Neddy, the Burt body loses part of its mythic aura. Against the capped teeth and glowingly brown tan are revealed various weak spots: the most prominent and obvious of which is a pronounced limp. The limp has an interesting life of its own. In the film’s diegesis, Ned Merrill gains the limp after a “bad takeoff” while jumping hurdles with his blonde babysitter (Janet Landgard). But the limp was not in the original Eleanor Perry treatment of the Cheever story; Lancaster’s limp, though temporary, was real. Perry wrote in the hurdles scene to her screenplay, so that Burt could feel more comfortable walking with this very obvious, awkward shuffle. The movie star tries to conceal his physical disability through the diegesis, so that it is easily rationalized within the make-believe space of the story. It’s this same star phobia of appearing weak that made Lancaster also take on a crash diet in order to get himself in shape for The Swimmer (after all, he had to wear nothing but swim trunks for the entire movie), and also compelled Lancaster to take swimming lessons from UCLA water polo coach Bob Horn in order to overcome his fear of swimming and to fix his terrible form.
Yet just as Manny Farber points out in his analysis of Lancaster’s performance in The Train, there are certain quirks of physiognomy which escape the actor, allowing the body to run on a tangent to the demands of the story. In The Train, it was the relentlessly scrambling action kicked up by Lancaster’s body, running tangent to Frankenheimer’s goal of making a serious allegory about the displacement of art and its troubling moral relativism during the Nazi campaign; the film slowly strays off the Frankenheimer path and becomes an obsessive chartering of Lancaster in motion, Lancaster in full Death-Drive mode (stop the train at all costs, including my own life, never mind its precious cargo of Renoirs-Van Goghs-Picassos and what that cargo symbolizes). Likewise, in The Swimmer, the quirk-beyond-plot is the ugly scar that runs across Burt’s back. It’s the chewed-taffy ass, pasty white and sagging a quarter of an inch behind the man supposedly in control of its glory. It’s the pot-belly which juts out after Burt has run too much. These punctum-like blips on Burt’s body are disorienting, de-rationalizing the order Burt tries to impose upon his own star image.
The Lancasterian arms also lose some of their stereotypically hunky vigor. For the first half-hour, Lancaster takes command of any backyard he invades through a power-crazed akimbo stance. Hands on hips, he brings attention to his bulging muscles, easily showing up his old friends, old farts in ties whose arms recede into their body. Tough biceps seem easily earned to Burt/Neddy. “He keeps himself in shape,” a suburban housewife muses out loud to herself, in a tone of voice that mixes lust, ruefulness, and barely-concealed disgust at her comparatively paunchy husband. With each new pool that Neddy swims, however, a part of the past returns to remind Neddy (and us) that this white god is not who he pretends to be. As Neddy loses steam, Lancaster’s default stance shifts from the akimbo to a tight self-hug. It’s a gesture that the narrative tries to rationalize as the result of the waning day. Perhaps Ned feels cold as night encroaches. But this seems impossible within the weird weather patterns and weightlessness-of-time in the film: Except for the outrageous storm in the last five minutes, the entire film impossibly takes place within the hot, sweltering, afternoon hours of noon to three (this is not nearly enough time to swim an entire county of pools in a single day).
So: Whence this bear-hug? It’s Lancaster’s brilliant embodiment of his character: He knows that Ned’s prime method of domination, like some alpha animal, is through an immaculate display of his body. And once the hard body starts being called into doubt (the wimpy, pathetic shove Mr. Biswanger deals Neddy; the encounter with Janice Rule where she coolly suggests she faked the orgasm), Lancaster starts to recede into himself, unable even to hold his arms in space, needing to pin his forearms to his body in a fear that they will float away. Probably the last hurrah of the muscles occurs in the last beats of the Janice Rule scene, in which Lancaster, having learned that Rule faked her sexual attraction to him, screams to the heavens “YOU LOVED IT!!!” as his muscles bulge unnaturally. Burt’s arms have not been this unhinged, this ripped, since he played the writhingly romantic Italian truck driver of Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo (1955). But in The Swimmer, the emotion expressed is not at all sympathetic. In both The Rose Tattoo and The Swimmer, Burt is shut off from the world, but in Rose Tattoo the reason is naïve romanticism, whereas here the reason (a deep-seated narcissism, anger, and bitterness rooted in postwar suburbia) is far more sinister, far less noble.
Part of what makes The Swimmer such an endlessly fascinating film is the way in which it talks back to the Burt Lancasters of films past, chipping away the seemingly unbreakable godlike image those films created. Burt’s hurdles scene with Janet Landgard—with the deliciously overwrought score by Marvin Hamlisch—is like a parody of the extreme he-man physique on display in The Crimson Pirate (1952) and The Flame and the Arrow (1950). Not that these movies weren’t already self-consciously ridiculous, but that now, in 1968, the only solidly “real” element of those films— Burt’s acrobat’s body—is now deflated, even as it seems to be excessively pumped up. One’s reaction to Burt’s jiggling pecs in Frank Perry’s slow-motion is not awe so much as laughter.
Similarly, Burt’s hyper-Italian-American truck driver of The Rose Tattoo, a dopey if lovable lug who gets emotionally worked up over slight things like a wild goat chase, gets conjured up in a rather ignoble Swimmer scene in which Burt fights with a fellow suburbanite over a hot-dog machine. The lost face, the flustered tripping over words, the heaving chest, and the melodramatic hell raised over an item so unusually specific is all transposed from The Rose Tattoo—but has none of that film’s sometimes-touching wonder.
The smiling bashfulness of Rose Tattoo has soured by the time it comes up again in The Swimmer. The suburbanite improbably manages to shove Burt on his ass. The old Burt would have, at the very least, retaliated with strong threats; most likely, he would have just clocked the sonuvabitch. Instead, Ned retreats to the safe world of bureaucracy, rationality, and rightness: “I’ll have my lawyers get in touch with you tomorrow,” he says, with a flat voice that indicates just how ashamed he is of what he’s just said, the latent safety of the statement, the cowardice he feels. The Burt of Rose Tattoo takes constant chances to woo Anna Magnani; the Burt of The Swimmer hasn’t taken a worthwhile gamble in years, most likely decades.
The scene at the public swimming pool is especially well-developed because of Lancaster’s interactions with people, as well as his critique of previous roles like the graceful Leopard and the machinelike Train conductor. At the public pool, Burt descends his suburban pedestal in order to meet the working class face-to-face. In the first of his two great encounters with a bit player in this scene, he faces a proto-Scruffy-from-Futurama pool attendant, who is acted by Dennis McMullen with far more color and quirk than any of the faceless moneyed drones we’ve yet met. His scruffy voice, bushy mustache, and casual don’t-give-a-shit delivery of lines to Lancaster (“Go on back…’n’ wash those feet,” eyes aimed squarely at Neddy’s dirty feet, never once looking him in the face, not an ounce of cloying, swooning, or envy) all create the perfect wall for Lancaster to crash into. Perfect, because it’s the first instance where he’s reminded that, in certain places, his name means nothing. To someone as empty and needy as Neddy, Scruffy’s blah reaction to him is even worse than the out-and-out contempt he experienced from Janice Rule. To Neddy, infamy is preferable to insignificance.
Once this Scruffy prole has accepted Ned into the pool, Burt faces his greatest challenge: swimming through a crowded midsummer pool filled with screaming kids, moms, and teen couples in the middle of a game of Chicken. Memories of Visconti’s Leopard come rudely rushing back. Gingerly, prissily, he tiptoes through the working-class heathens, gasping for air at several points as if he were drowning—this, despite the fact that the pool is barely five feet deep. In Visconti, Lancaster was the sole grace note in a sea of waltzing decadence. The threads of an entire generation of Italian aristocracy circa 1862 came apart, and Lancaster, not willing to take part in a morbid new way of life with dubious morals and outright hypocrisy, decides to dance his last dance and (in the haunting final shot of The Leopard) stroll into obscurity—faded, gone, but at least left with dignity. No such dignity exists in his Swimmer shimmy in the public pool. Here, there is no waltz in a post-decadent and morally bankrupt suburban America. Youth and the revolution have bypassed Ned Merrill, and he has no idea that his side has lost. Ignobly, he tries to avoid an inevitable part of American culture: its masses.
It doesn’t work, as evidenced by Ned’s/Burt’s next encounters with a group of adult locals to whom he is in debt. “When are ya gonna pay ya bill, Mr. Merrill?” one woman sharply demands. “Yeah, how about that,” her male friend chimes in, “we’re decent people tryin’ to make a living!” This man is a particularly fascinating figure: Overweight, lazy-eyed, with (the key punctum of the scene) a gap tooth that sharply contrasts Lancaster’s set of pearly whites, he is the polar opposite of a godlike movie star. Yet this bit player, unlike Lancaster, is completely comfortable within his own body. He does not suffer decrepitly and morbidly like Ned, who only thinks about how he will appear in the yearly Christmas cards that the unseen wife Lucinda sends out. Lancaster reacts against these locals with a restraint that strains him. He grits his teeth—as if trying to remind the fat local that he has the better smile—but to no avail: The local simply looks at him with a stupefied, open-mouth gawp. Burt’s angry rebukes to the locals become ever more desperate: “My daughters worship me….they love me and respect me….” Of course, he covers his arms in that whimpering bearhug of his, instead of his more alpha akimbo. The locals simply respond with knowingly smug smiles, silent, judging faces. The anger and humiliation that Ned endures becomes too much for him; he explodes, violently shoves one of the locals to the ground, and scrambles up a rock formation next to the pool in an effort to escape these locals. He climbs up this hilariously, randomly placed cliff in a manner reminiscent—of all things—of his “scrambling around the French countryside,” as Manny Farber observed, in Frankenheimer’s The Train. In that film’s thrilling finale, Lancaster rolled down a hill. Frankenheimer’s camera refused to cut in an effort to show us how fantastically agile Lancaster was. Just two years later, Lancaster strains his body to a similar extent—except the elements of the physical stunt are all off. Frank Perry cuts thrice during the scramble-up, in contrast to Frankenheimer’s space-respecting long take. In The Train, Lancaster’s character kept moving like the machine he’s supposed to be in the film; but in The Swimmer, once Ned reaches the top, he collapses onto his belly and starts wildly panting, as if he is going to throw up. Lancaster overdoes the panting, but this is the point: Here is a man far past his prime, and even when he has been embarrassingly called out by the locals who were once beneath him, he still feels the need to assert his late alpha status: I’m still fit, I’m still athletic, I’m still good ole boy Neddy Merrill.
In fact, not only is Neddy no longer the alpha he once was, he is not even Neddy; that is, there is nothing underneath him. Neddy Merrill is not a real person, but an allegorical cipher of a deeper, disturbing malaise lurking underneath America. Time and again, Frank Perry focuses on elements of Burt which have not been featured in previous Lancaster films, dwelling on their uncanny ability to signify things we didn’t think Burt could specifically signify. One huge item: The eyes, which fellow co-star Janet Landgard notes as having never been so incessantly focused on in a Lancaster film before. “I didn’t even notice they were blue all along,” she says in an 2014 interview.6 Burt’s eyes are deeply, surprisingly cerulean. They uncannily reflect the color of the chlorine-free swimming pools of his fellow suburbanites. In a film as loftily allegorical as The Swimmer, we can’t help but link the eyes to the pools, and the pools to the moral psychological emptiness of the way of life being brashly satirized and critiqued by Lancaster, the Perrys, and John Cheever.
The eyes glimmer with the manic desire to swim every pool in the Connecticut neighborhood. Thus, they are a symbolic variation of one of Burt Lancaster’s common personas, the man with the Death Drive (à la Brute Force, Trapeze, The Train, Gypsy Moths) whose insatiable desire for one specific goal (break out of prison, nail the Triple, stop the train, wait longer and longer until I pull the chute) consumes his every bodily action and flummoxes everyone around him. But in The Swimmer, Death Drive Burt is simultaneously given his most perverse goal (swim every pool in my neighborhood, the “Lucinda Rivah,” in a day) and his most sedate rendering (Burt is never as jittery or crazed as the other four films).
There are also the allegories nestled in the film’s central conceit: Burt Lancaster acts the entire film in nothing but a pair of swim trunks. It’s a very vain move, since Lancaster is still buff, despite the humiliations suffered by his character. But it’s also a very brave move. In one scene where he reencounters a couple of nudist friends, he literally strips down. The body, baring everything, is made to be flabby and soft in a manner that goes against the Suited-Up Burt of more sinister roles like Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Seven Days in May (1964). It is literally naked, therefore most vulnerable. Indeed, in the nudist scene, the body becomes a receptacle for gossip. The nudists ask each other: Neddy has been in debt, so why did he just sign up for our fancy lunch? How will he pay for it? I didn’t see a wallet next to that junk. We become hyper-aware of Burt’s skin, perhaps our own.
Because of the swim-trunks conceit, we also become hyper-aware of the color of Burt’s skin. Whiteness is the unspoken yet obvious undercurrent running throughout The Swimmer. The only two people of color in the film are both black men and both at opposite extremes: a grotesquely grinning bartender at a white suburban soiree (“Yessir!”) and a fantastically underplayed chauffeur (Bernie Hamilton, who was a beautifully subtle presence in Luis Buñuel’s The Young One; One Potato, Two Potato; and Captain Dobey on TV’s Starsky and Hutch). Ned confuses the chauffeur with another black servant he used to have from years’ back. “Boy, did he mangle the English language,” Burt says with breathtaking obliviousness. “We told him he should be on television. [Long, awkward pause, where Hamilton does not respond.] Big bass voice—you shoulda heard the guy sing.” “With a natural sense of rhythm?” says Hamilton, head held high and eyes trained on the road. “Yeah, that’s right!” Ned responds. After he’s just shown he can’t tell black men apart, instead of feeling flustered, instead of feeling the need to recalibrate his manner of talking to Hamilton, he digs even deeper into the racist awkwardness of this brief but powerful conversation. Indeed, the film becomes, after a while, a nauseating, decadent parade of whiteness—eating itself away, crumbling in on itself, as clean yet deadly as the 99.99.99% filtered pool water of one of Neddy’s neighbors. If the system of suburbia is held under the filmmakers’ contempt, so, too, is the twin system of white supremacy that holds it up—and the Hollywood star system, by extension. Though the born-working-class Lancaster is already partly out-of-place in the milieu—as Buford notes in her biography, “Frank Perry and John Cheever first thought [Lancaster] miscast” and “incongruous as a smooth Connecticut Wasp”—he still shows a remarkable forwardness in his willingness to question the systems of power and glamor that made him a star, and that makes characters like Neddy Merrill so successful—at least, for a time.
As the film swells to its finale, Burt Lancaster’s body shrivels more and more into itself. By the end, he does nothing but bear-hug himself. By the final shot, he is reduced to rocking back-and-forth at the doorstep of his long-abandoned house (no Lucinda, no kids) in a fetal position. This powerful final shot has none of the obvious metaphorical overtones of a similar fall-from-grace film as Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000), despite the fact that both films are centered around the demythologization of a certain kind of American Dream. Aronofsky’s fetal positions seem coarse and dreadfully contrived, a last-minute pulling of the Gimp-string7 to zazz up an already obvious film with Significance. By contrast, the Lancasterian fetal position is earned—earned, because Lancaster has, over the course of a disjointed and rocky shoot, maintained a stunning, tight control of his body, in order to lose control of it, to bring it under a microscopic lens and to offer it up for cutting critique. Lancaster’s deeply personal performance found a rare good match in the film’s poster tagline: “When you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about yourself?” This personal attack on the film’s own audience—an attack on a white, upscale set of viewers, perhaps the same people who picked up the New Yorker and read Cheever's original story—is only possible because Lancaster has started the personal attacks on the very body he trusted most in the world: his own.
Thanks to Scott Bukatman and Pavle Levi, who co-taught a seminar on the films of Burt Lancaster, out of which most of these ideas developed.
"Burt Lancaster" runs July 18 – August 15, 2019 at New York's Film Forum.