Monday, 29 May 2017

Alternate Best Actor 1968: Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer

Burt Lancaster did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Ned Merrill in The Swimmer.

The late 1960's offers a peculiar stage in filmmaking, representative of the greater cultural changes of the time. In the final few years there was a strange state in how different the films were as there were the old Hollywood mainstays still, in fact the featured actor of this review's other vehicle of 1968 was in the more traditional western The Scalphunters. The Swimmer offers quite the difference in style, and is a style that only existed for those few years really. In that the new Hollywood was starting to or about to start to come into presence in the seventies yet there were those old Hollywood films that looked as though they could have been made in the fifties. There were also those films that were quite unique though as they represent some of those directors attempting change their styles or utilize the new techniques sometimes effectively sometimes not so much, leaving the films sort of between two periods. The Swimmer is one of those films as it has those qualities, and takes upon subject matter that in terms of the broad ideas was tackled in fifties yet its approach is quite different. This is fitting though to this film given that the story of a man who decides to "swim" his way home one summer day doesn't exactly suggest a most literal interpretation.

Although the film presents its events as literal, as in they do happen, the technique often falls into the surreal fitting to the surreal concept behind the story. This story though, and the film itself could devolve all into itself becoming an exercise or an experiment, possibly even a failed one if it were not for Burt Lancaster. If I may go on a slight tangent for a moment and think about the comparison of Lancaster and his friend and frequent co-star Kirk Douglas. That connection is not their only one given their breakout in the mid-forties and their similair careers as leading men. I have stood by my clear preference towards Douglas for his consistency as an actor, though this view has become grayer the more I see of Lancaster. Nothing will rid Lancaster of his lesser works, yet with him there is this individuality of his best work, a surprise of it, a rarity in that it seems as though it is only capable from Lancaster himself. Now to divert back to this film as this is an example of that, not just because of Lancaster's swimmer's physique, but there is something he does here that only seems like it could come from the actor.

The film opens with Lancaster's Ned as he dives to swim through a pool coming out to be greeted by a small group of friends. Ned was swimming in his friends' pool and seems to be on good terms with the people as they engage in very small talk. Lancaster's performance here sets up Ned very effectively as he seeds who he is, yet does not tells us who he truly is, yet. In that Lancaster creates the right ease of conversation as they speak about really nothing at all though Lancaster does emphasize a particular focus in Ned on the pool and swimming. When speaking about other things Lancaster shows enough of a comfort as Ned speaks of them, but switches to a far stronger passion in his words when discussing the idea of swimming. This becomes all the more notable when he speaks to his friends about the days of old and swimming down a stream in the summertime. There is such a powerful nostalgia for his words as Lancaster's eyes seem looking back to those old times with such affection, though perhaps just as a man reliving a good memory. This leads Ned though to come up with a rather strange idea.

The strange idea to make his way home by going from house to house for a swim in each of his neighbors' pools. When discussing this idea Lancaster carefully portrays this in that it can be taken one way, though with hindsight we'll learn it means something else. Lancaster at first though speaks of the idea with such earnest desire and that it seems like it might just be the fun idea of some free spirit having a good time on a summer day. There is nothing too alarming about Ned's plan, and Lancaster to his utmost credit seems to create a logic to it in his portrayal of Ned's nostalgic perspective. As he begins his journey, the journey itself seems suitable to this view as the initial swims are given this lust for life through Lancaster's physical performance. In every physical gesture early on, whether it is swimming through a neighbor's pool, or running alongside a horse there is such sheer unadulterated joy Lancaster reveals in the act. It goes beyond just a fun time though as the exuberance in every facet of Lancaster's being emphasizes the idea of a man living to the fullest, or so it seems.

As the swims continue as do Ned's interactions with the various people around the neighborhood and this seems a pleasant enough affair at first. One of the first groups Ned comes across is a group of neighborhood former kids including Julie who used to babysit his kids. This initial meeting is brilliantly portrayed by Lancaster because on the surface he continues as this man on his pleasant journey as he greets every one of them so warmly, and even races Julie in the pool for a good swim a few times. Lancaster though, in this warm greeting, though suggests a sadness, a subtle quiet one just as he reflects on just how old all the kids have gotten. He doesn't lose the smile on his face but in his eyes and within the words Lancaster alludes towards this hidden sorrow. Again it's slight, and it seems not too worrisome, but it's there. It can be forgotten soon enough as he goes off with Julie for awhile and she talks about her old fantasies of the past involving Ned, which leads to a future one from Ned. This is even made somewhat innocuous by Lancaster, despite being technically a creepy old man lusting a young woman as there is a purity to the request as though he is asking to live out a dream or perhaps the past.

Julie rejects the offer leaving what Lancaster depicts as a frustrated yet not broken state as he continues his journey. His next interaction with a few neighbors is a little salty, but he eventually comes across a boy near his empty swimming pool. This is a downright amazing scene for Lancaster which he uses to reestablish Ned's journey as something special, something hopeful. He takes the boy on an imagined swim, by miming the motions through the empty pool, and that joy of life resumes. As he speaks to the boy there is such palatable optimism that Lancaster brings as he speaks about wishing one's dreams true. There is such belief of this in that moment, and Lancaster shows the way Ned recaptures the spirit to live out this peculiar dream of his through his interactions with the boy which are genuinely heartwarming if inspiring. Lancaster shows the way Ned basically goes on cloud nine after this experience until this moment realization, where Lancaster perfectly breaks that certain gaze when Ned runs back to stop the boy since he believes he might try diving into the empty pool. In that moment Lancaster offers a strict reality, and I love the way he does this as it emphasizes a danger in dreaming.

From there on Lancaster's work further reveals what is going on with Ned as he continues his trek to less friendly waters such as when he crashes another party with less than welcoming hosts. Lancaster's performance effectively creates this conflict within Ned as he attempts to continue his own dreams even as realities keep confronting him. In the gate crashing party Lancaster turns on the charm on the hostess and a guest, though it doesn't do much for him, but it calls back to the beginning of the man who seemed to be enjoying life. The salty reactions though offer little, and Ned is bluntly faced with a bit reality again when he sees that the neighbors have a hot dog cart he used to own. This scene could easily fall apart but it doesn't because of Lancaster. He somehow makes this man pining for his old hot dog wagon absolutely heartbreaking since he shows such a loss in his resolve as he asks for it. Although it could be like a boy wanting his toy back, and in some ways it is, Lancaster makes it so painful to Ned as in the pleading he reveals just how much the item means to him beyond the object itself.

The journey does not get much better though Lancaster still reveals just hints of pleasure when he has the few chances to swim or run. Lancaster's physical portrayal is so pivotal as again there is something primal in these moments of the man attaching himself to the act as form of comfort. The comfort though is wasted though such as when Ned meets his old mistress at another pool, where Lancaster carries the overlying charm as he speaks about their old times together yet undercuts it all with the unease in his face as she reveals nothing pleasant about the experience. That terrible time leaves Ned with only one pool left the communal swimming pool, which he struggles into and as he swims through Lancaster finally shows not even a hint of happiness in that act anymore. Things only worsen when the locals harass the "rich man" Ned over his debts and his personal failures. Lancaster is devastating as he shows Ned without the net of his dreams even as he attempts to defend himself through false claims that reek of such desperation revealing just the pitiful soul Ned is in the end. The revelation being that in way Ned is kind of the crazy man walking around in his underwear spouting nonsense, he just happens to wear better. What we see when Ned gets home is just inevitability due to Lancaster's performance. This is outstanding piece of work by Lancaster as he makes the film successful by always providing a human element that stops the film from being overcome by its stylistic choice and its metaphors. Lancaster makes the human connection through his work which is incredible as he makes the viewer understand Ned's delusions and even creates the appeal of them. He makes sense even out of the central conceit by so brilliantly realizing who this man is in such harrowing detail. I love this performance as it is a masterful and deeply emotional portrait of man lost in both his dreams and his sorrows.

69 comments:

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Ratings/Thoughts on the rest of the cast.

Calvin Law said...

This sounds like such a bizarre film, but this review makes me really want to watch it.

Calvin Law said...

Also, with regards to Lancaster and Douglas, I do think the latter has the higher heights (I'm so tempted to grant him the win for 1957), but Lancaster probably put in more daring performances that I love.

Calvin Law said...

Louis: what do you make of a 1950s True Detective with Douglas in McConaughey's role and Lancaster in Harrelson's?

Louis Morgan said...

Luke:

The film has a large ensemble but it's very much a film where the rest of the cast gives very distant performances, purposefully though to stand against Lancaster's performance. I thought everyone was effective as a group in terms of representing whatever they meant towards Ned. All limited, but good in terms of that limitation.

Calvin:

Perfect.

Charles Heiston said...

Sounds like it's your favorite of his. I'm yet to see this as well.

Charles Heiston said...

I also hope you review Lancaster for The Leopard when you get to 63 lead. He's excellent there.

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

Louis: Is this your favorite Lancaster performance.
Also, I think he'll be #2 after Bronson in the updated overall.

RatedRStar said...

Wonder Woman reviews are looking excellent, I have booked some VIP tickets to see it this friday =D.

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

RatedRStar: Well that's a relief =) I am sick of watching shitty DC films with my friends, so I'm glad this one turned out different.

Also, I watched Planes, Trains and Automobiles for the first time. John Candy is undoubtedly my win for 1987, and Steve Martin's also a 5 for me.

Robert MacFarlane said...

I could see Lancaster taking this one

Gus B. said...

Louis: what's your top 10 Cotillard's performances now you saw Rust and Bone?

Also hope you see The Leopard soon.

Calvin Law said...

Louis: would Michael Keaton be an ideal choice for Lancaster's role in a contemporary film?

Louis Morgan said...

Tahmeed:

Yes.

Gus:

1. The Immigrant
2. La Vie En Rose
3. Two Days, One Night
4. Rust and Bone
5. Macbeth
6. Public Enemies
7. Allied
8. Inception
9. Midnight in Paris
10. Nine

Calvin:

Mel Gibson, which would add another whole dimension to the story.

Luke Higham said...

RatedRStar & Tahmeed: I'm pleased to hear that. Does it give me any optimism for the future, not really.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Luke on this one. Wonder Woman might be good, but Justice League might be terrible.

Luke Higham said...

I'm willing to give Aquaman a chance, but I'm gonna have to pass on Justice League. Anything with Snyder's name on it gives me no confidence whatsoever.

Luke Higham said...

And he's already had 2 misfires with DC.

Anonymous said...

Luke: What about Watchmen? Isn't that DC?

Luke Higham said...

Anonymous: My Apologies, 3 misfires. :)

Calvin Law said...

Joss Whedon's partially taking over JL but under very unfortunate circumstances.

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: I felt very sorry for him, when his daughter passed away. :(

I don't think Joss Whedon would improve it that much.

Anonymous said...

Luke: Besides, how can he develop Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman in one movie?

Anonymous said...

Oops, should have asked that to Calvin.

Luke Higham said...

Anonymous: It's very difficult. With Civil War, Marvel were able to could get away with it because we know Spider-Man's origins all too well and they only had to develop Black Panther. They should've delayed Justice League until we had both Aquaman & The Flash films released.

Luke Higham said...

Anonymous: DC's strategic planning has been God-Awful.

Calvin Law said...

Anonymous: You can't. Especially with characters with as complex a backstory like the Flash, or so much world-building behind them like Aquaman. They're really just rushing stuff.

Luke: Agreed. I'm glad he made the right choice to pull out, family is the most important thing.

Calvin Law said...

And to be honest, establishing Batman in a film with Superman, and an inadequate Joker in a film where he's not even the focal villain were already severe mistakes in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Luke: Yeah, DC's planning is awful. I don't know about you, but I don't think Miller is a good choice for Barry Allen.

Luke Higham said...

Anonymous: I agree with you, Tye Sheridan may have been a better choice.

Charles Heiston said...

On an unrelated note, does anyone here listen to any Craig David songs. I think he's great.

Luke Higham said...

*Marvel were able to get away with it.

Charles: No. Most music nowadays doesn't really do it for me.

Charles Heiston said...

Luke: I know how you feel. The music today is shameful. I'm very big on 80's music.

Charles Heiston said...

Luke: I only like a limited amount of singers today. Music from decades ago puts today to shame.

Luke Higham said...

Charles: Adele and Pink are probably the only solo singers in this day and age, where I like at least 75% of their work. Sia's a bit of an oddity to me, I greatly appreciate her talent, but I actually prefer her work as a featured artist.

I'll admit having a massive crush on Shakira when I was about 8. I still like her, though I've only listened to her world cup songs in recent times.

Luke Higham said...

Charles: When it comes to 70s/80s music, I love that classic synthesised sound.

Anonymous said...

Louis: Your thoughts on the "You're tearing me apart Lisa", the "I'm fed up with this world" and "Do you want me to order a pizza" scenes.

Calvin Law said...

Charles: Well 7 Days is one of my favourite gym tunes, but I have to say I haven't listened too much of his stuff overall.

Charles Heiston said...

Calvin: I really love 7 Days. I recommend All We Needed as that's another great one.

mcofra7 said...

Louis: What do you think of Masaki Kobayashi? I think he is underrated when compared to other Japanese directors like Kurosawa.

Calvin Law said...

Just saw The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki. It's an absolute delight.

Louis Morgan said...

Anonymous:

Well "You're Tearing Me Apart" is rather awe inspiring in think right down to the choice to so awkwardly frame the moment itself in Weiseu's homage to Rebel Without a Cause, that sheer ambition to replicate something that does not really even work to begin with.

"I'm Fed Up with this world" a moment filled with such profound outrage to the point he goes up those stairs that I'm quite sure don't actually lead to anywhere.

"Do you want me to order a pizza" is a scene that defies all expectations I think since Wieseau chooses in one moment to act as though Johnny doesn't want pizza only to change his approach to the exact opposite a split second later. Few would be so daring, but I suppose it was his way to show the uncertainty of life.

mcofra7:

I think he's a great director, though I'd say all of the notable Japanese directors are a little underrated except for Kurosawa who is properly rated as one of the all time greats. Kobayashi's though offers his own unique vision away from Kurosawa who has his own similair individualistic bent yet is far more pessimistic in terms of one successfully breaking away from the shackles of restrictive society. Kobayashi's is sort of showing the fight worth having though in his deeply emotional films, that while have that social commentary it never wags the dog. Kobayashi's work as a director, visually, actually reminds me a bit of David Lean in that he captures the emotional intimacy of his stories and characters yet often surrounds them with this remarkable grand scale in terms of the often stunning visuals and the greater context of the story.

Matt Mustin said...

Finally caught up with Guardians vol. 2. It's fine, but just fine.
Pratt-2.5(I'm really starting to get tired of his schtick. He just kinda got on my nerves, and I feel like he let himself be overshadowed by Russell and Rooker)
Cooper-2.5(I loved Rocket in the first film, but he really annoyed me here. The writing made him just straight up mean, and Cooper just plays straight into that. He tries, but he can't overcome the writing)
Saldana-3(Perfectly fine)
Bautista-4(Hilarious. Every line was delivered with pitch-perfect deadpan timing, and I love that laugh that he has. His smaller emotional moment he also handles well)
Rooker-4(He's always good and that's the case here. I probably cared more about his story than anyone else's. His biggest achievement though was that he sold the relationship between Yondu and Quill despite the film focusing on it much less than it probably should have, and he manages to make the ending work)
Russell-3.5(Perfectly cast, and he brings the exact right kind of presence and attitude)
Gillan-2(Ehhh, she's just kinda boring)

Calvin Law said...

Louis: your top 10 Paul Dano acting moments?

Charles Heiston said...

Louis: Your top 10 James Mason acting moments as well.

Gus B. said...

Louis: what's your top 10 Cotillard's acting moments?

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

Louis: Your top 5 James McAvoy acting moments.
Also, Louis, are there any Supporting Actor nominees of any year that could go up from a 3 to a 3.5, or a 3.5 to a 4.

Robert MacFarlane said...

Louis: Is there any chance you might switch to March for your 1964 Supporting Actor win?

Calvin Law said...

Saw Baywatch, it's not an awful film. Not great, but not awful.

Efron: 3
Johnson: 3
Chopra: 2
Daddario: 2.5
Rorbach: 3
Bass: 3 (would be higher if it wasn't for an unfortunate early gag)
Hadera: 2.5
Abdul-Mateen II: 3
Huebel: 2

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: What did you think of Johnson's comments on the critics.

Anonymous said...

Louis: Who would you choose for Harvey Bullock and Renee Montoya if they ever appeared in a live-action Batman movie?

Robert MacFarlane said...

Anonymous: Paul Sorvino and Michelle Rodriguez

Charles Heiston said...

Paul Sorvino is a very undercast actor to me. He should have bigger roles.

Calvin Law said...

Luke: I don't really agree with what he says but it is true that critics may be being a bit too harsh.

Luke Higham said...

Charles: The most recent film I ever saw Paul Sorvino in was See Spot Run.

Charles Heiston said...

Luke: Wow, now that's a testament to how he's not getting good roles.

Robert MacFarlane said...

I saw Sorvino in Jersey Shore Shark Attack on Syfy and nearly wept.

Louis Morgan said...

Calvin:

Dano:

1. Baptism - There Will Be Blood
2. Making Animal Sounds - Love and Mercy
3. Bus reenactment - Swiss Army Man
4. Being berated by his father - Love and Mercy
5. Dinner Table - Love and Mercy
6. THAT song - 12 Years a Slave
7. Campfire - Swiss Army Man
8. Car breakdown - Little Miss Sunshine
9. Jurassic Park - Swiss Army Man
10. "Healing the woman" - There Will Be Blood

Charles:

Mason:

1. Killing Quilty - Lolita
2. The solution - Bigger Than Life
3. Chest Pain - Lolita
4. Captain Nemo destroy the ship - 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
5. Coming to - Bigger Than Life
6. A Final Prayer - The Shooting Party
7. At a loss for words - The Verdict
8. Reunion with Lolita - Lolita
9. Dobbs figures it out - The Deadly Affair
10. The Auction - North by Northwest

Gus:

Cotillard:

1. Reunion - The Immigrant
2. Mute Singing - La Vie En Rose
3. Sandra's suicide attempt - Two Days One Night
4. Being separated from Magda - The Immigrant
5. The ending - Two Days One Night
6. Magic Show - The Immigrant
7. Learning of Marcel's death - La Vie En Rose
8. Returning to Sea World - Rust and Bone
9. Elder Edith entertains - La Vie En Rose
10. Police Custody - Public Enemies

Tahmeed:

I'm sure there are but I can't name any off the top of my head.

1. Same Rules still apply - Filth
2. Phone sex break down - Filth
3. Confession to Dr. Rossi - Filth
4. Describing the competition - Filth
5. Meeting the widow - Filth

Robert:

It's not out of the question the top three that year are sort of a toss up for me.

Anonymous:

Sorvino sadly is little too old now, though he would've been a perfect Bullock in the 90's. Now I'd say Nick Offerman.

Calvin Law said...

Nothing from Prisoners? I'm surprised, though we completely agree on his best scene.

Calvin Law said...

Also, 'THAT song' indeed. I've always wondered if he could have taken on Fassbender's role and made something of it.

Luke Higham said...

Calvin: Would've been interesting, though I'll always remain supportive of Fassbender's work there.

I'm pretty sure there'd be quite a few War & Peace scenes on that list, whenever Louis has the time to see it.

Charles Heiston said...

You mentioning those Mason moments from Lolita remind me about how unfortunate it is of his performance being the same year as O'Toole's.

Calvin Law said...

Luke: Oh don't get me wrong, I still think Fassbender is good. I really need to start on W+P.

Luke Higham said...

Charles: At least he managed to get a win. :)

Charles Heiston said...

Luke: True, he'd be my win for Bigger Than life as well. :)

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Has Cotillard gone up to a five for Public Enemies.

Louis Morgan said...

Luke:

Not officially but I love her in that scene.

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

Louis: Your 6-10 McAvoy moments, also kinda surprised his 'I used to be a good person' breakdown isn't in the top 5.

Louis Morgan said...

Tahmeed:

5. "I used to be a good person" - Filth
6. Supermarket - Filth
7. Confronting the gang - Filth
8. "I don't want your future" - Days of Future Past
9. Confronting Amin - The Last King of Scotland
10. Interrogating the teenagers - Filth