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