A Life in the Day: The Masculine Irreality of The Swimmer

The Swimmer (1968) | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

I

“THIS IS THE DAY NED MERRILL SWIMS ACROSS THE COUNTY”

“What was astonishing to him was how people seemed to run out of their own being, run out of whatever the stuff was that made them who they were and, drained of themselves, turn into the sort of people they would once have felt sorry for. It was as though while their lives were rich and full they were secretly sick of themselves and couldn’t wait to dispose of their sanity and their health and all sense of proportion so as to get down to that other self, the true self, who was a wholly deluded fuckup.”

-Philip Roth, American Pastoral

The tranquil hush of Connecticut woodlands. A miracle convergence of idyllic clichés made real and made beautiful—a life-cradling place where the brooks babble and the hills roll and golden sunlight dances through the sway of wind-caressed branches. Deer drink from crystal springs, owls hoot. The unspoiled arcadia of natural things.

A crunch of footsteps disrupts the quiet, a crackle of leaves beneath the bare feet of some intruding and unseen Thing, invisible to the eye as if unformed, incorporeal, a force sensed rather than seen as deer startle and run, rabbits scurry and hide, the owl takes flight, the Thing somehow divorced from natural law in its sewing of discord, a Thing unnatural in nature, its steps quickening quickening quickening, willing itself into the world, into Form, as the noise increases and the stomping explodes until in one long push of labor there he is: Man, his bronzed body impossibly wide at the shoulders before tapering to a slim waist and cabled throughout with gleefully dancing muscles covered only by the navy blue square of short swim trunks as he runs out of the woods and to the neighborhood, the backyard, the pool in a long smooth leap from wooded green to chlorinated blue, some kind of obscene inverse birth from the natural world to a concrete womb that underlines the unreal perversity of this this self-conjured Man.

~ ~ ~

From the opening moments of 1968’s The Swimmer, in which middle-aged lothario Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) launches himself—unannounced and uninvited—from the nearby woods and into the pool of his affluent friends the Westerhazys on a summer morning, it’s evident that something is off. Where did he come from, why was he in the woods, where are his clothes? Where is this family man’s family? Why do the Westerhazys, though hungover and heavy-lidded with an ennui-on-main-street kind of debauched laziness, so easily accept his explosive delivery from nowhere and into their pool? Where has the absent Ned been the past year, and why is his blithe answer—“Oh, here and there. Here and there”—so dazedly proffered and so absentmindedly accepted?

Even before time begins to accelerate with whole seasons occurring within a single day, even before Ned announces his bizarre quest to swim home “along a river of sapphire pools”—from the Westerhazys’ he charts a line of pools that doglegs across this upscale county, leading through a series of manicured backyards to his own “house on the hill” at the county’s opposite end—something about this interaction seems, at best, only reality-adjacent. Ned whirls his perfect swimmer’s body from person to person, reestablishing his bona fides as the county’s preeminent alpha male, a dervish of ball-busting and compulsive womanizing. Almost manic, he jostles the bellies of the men, whispers seductively to the women, brags that if sex sapped a man’s strength “I’d be in a wheelchair today.” In his dreamy state, everything seems dazzlingly new (“What a day! You ever see such a glorious day?!?”), yet is dismissive and opaque when the subject laps back to his whereabouts for the past year (“Oh, I was around”).

The same eerie haze extends to the Westerhazys and their various houseguests, whose rum-punched morning-after stupor leaves them in no position to outpace Ned’s spacey good cheer and dickswaggering, Madison Avenue smarm as he updates them on his “great, just great” wife Lucinda and his two “all grown up and beautiful” daughters. They instead respond with a kind of blank artifice, patient and grinning, like parents waiting out the exaggerated storytelling of a child.

Something is fundamentally wrong here, made all the more peculiar by the normalcy and natural beauty of the surroundings. Ned is right, it is a glorious day, with a sky the same pristine cerulean as the pool below it and a warm aura of sunlight glowing on every surface, but that normalcy grates against the oddness of Ned and the strangeness he elicits in others. It creates an uncanny friction that builds beneath the skin of the scene like an unreachable swimmer’s cramp, one that insidiously spreads across the film’s 95-minute body as it deep-dives into unreality.

~ ~ ~

Based on John Cheever’s slippery fever dream of a short story, The Swimmer (written and directed by Eleanor and Frank Perry, respectively, with uncredited reshoots by Sydney Pollack) faithfully translates and expands Cheever’s 12 pages of suburban surrealism into a feature-length nightmare of masculine panic. As mysterious as its doomed protagonist, The Swimmer unnervingly wriggles from grasp. Is it a ghost story, with Ned haunting the pools and people of his past? An allegory for the journey through life? A country club retelling of the Narcissus myth by way of The Odyssey? A metaphoric deconstruction of postwar masculinity?  

Maybe yes, maybe no, maybe some, maybe all of the above. Star Burt Lancaster called it Death of a Salesman in swim trunks.”  Cheever, forever autopsying the rot growing beneath constructed social identities of New England suburbia, called it a story “about the irreversibility of human conduct.” Ultimately, it may simply be the portrait of a Man, and the story of the desperately small man who hides within that portrait, and the devastation wrought by his attempts to inhabit the myths of manhood needed to sustain that strange simulacra.

That Man is “Ned Merrill,” and that man is Ned Merrill. And this is the day “Ned Merrill” swims across the county, and this is the day Ned Merrill comes home.

II

“IF YOU MAKE BELIEVE HARD ENOUGH THAT SOMETHING IS TRUE…”

“Had you gone for a Sunday afternoon ride that day you might have seen him, close to naked, standing on the shoulders of Route 424, waiting for a chance to cross. You might have wondered if he was the victim of foul play, had his car broken down, or was he merely a fool.”

-John Cheever, “The Swimmer”

“I can swim home,” Ned mutters emphatically at the Westerhazys’ pool, his face overlaid with a dissolve of sun-shimmered water like a glowing lattice of revelation. He sees an epic task that is both worthy of his self-image and one he is uniquely worthy to undertake; or, as he puts it with unequivocal sincerity: “I’m an explorer…I’m a very special human being. Noble. And splendid.”

It’s a startling performance, and Lancaster (who over a decade before wore the same trunks and body—now seamed and leathered with middle age—to define postwar virility and sexuality in From Here to Eternity) does the finest, most nuanced work of his long career, though it’s work initially easy to miss or dismiss. “Ned Merrill” is so rooted in capital-A Acting that one’s nose wrinkles at the constant melodrama of his hyperbole and scenery chewing—but that forced inauthenticity comes not from Lancaster but from Merrill, the real Merrill, who more and more appears to be performing in a movie of his own making that only he can see, pitching his performance at a ludicrous range so that even those in the cheap seats of reality can bear witness to his third-rate traveling Odyssey show set in a series of backyards. Lancaster is playing a man who is playing a Man, and while Lancaster fearlessly succeeds, Ned’s performative machismo becomes increasingly grating and false

~ ~ ~

Nearly all of the men encountered along what Ned calls “the Lucinda River” serve as deconstructions of the various kinds of damaged or damaging masculinity that reflect make up his own personality. There are men like Mr. Biswanger and Mr. Graham, showboats bragging about the expenditures laid out to finance their luxurious pools. There’s the absent and philandering Mr. Gilmartin, who absconded with his wife’s manicurist and destroyed his marriage, and there’s Mr. Halloran, the emasculated nudist, sitting naked in his backyard as his wife chastises his every decision (which included offering  Ned—heretofore assumed to be deeply wealthy—some kind of loan in the last year).

Then there’s Mr. Gilmartin’s young child, Kevin, left home with the maid during his parents’ divorce. When Ned discovers the Gilmartin’s pool has been emptied because Kevin is a terrible swimmer, he faces dual crises: Kevin’s sense of diminished self-worth, and the possibility that he will not be able to complete his Herculean labor of swimming home. Ned resolves both by subtly revealing the nature of his psychology and worldview (and, potentially, the nature of his existence) to Kevin.

Michael Kearney and Burt Lancaster in THE SWIMMER (1968) | Columbia Pictures

First, Ned dismisses Kevin’s sense of social and familial abandonment as a positive, hinting at his own possible exile:

“It’s a lot better that way…at first you think it’s the end of the world because you’re not on the team, until you realize…that you’re free. You’re your own man. You don’t have to worry about being captain and all that status stuff…You’re the captain of your soul. That’s what counts.”

Then, he announces his intent to “swim” with Kevin by walking along the bottom of the empty pool, letting their arms go through the various motions and strokes:

“There’s one thing I could do. I could get down there and make believe I’m swimming across the pool…You see, if you make believe hard enough that something is true, then it is true for you.”

Perhaps, beneath his boastful exterior, Ned sees himself in Kevin’s dejected and lonely life. Perhaps he is even helping Kevin in the short term by nurturing the confidence to (fake) swim. But by spreading his philosophy of existential derangement to this child, he is helping cultivate in Kevin the same spooky, testosterone-goosed intransigence that drives his own progressively erratic and toxic behavior. If the opening moments of the film capture the “birth” of Ned from nothingness, and the neighborhood men he encounters later are like disparate shards of his adult persona, then this encounter with Kevin plays like a recreation of the moment that bridges the two halves, the moment in which Ned the boy became “Ned” the Man, the moment in which he, for reasons unknown, convinced himself that if he could believe a lie, then he could live it, too.

~ ~ ~

As Ned continues down the Lucinda River, he notices a funny thing: what seemed like a balmy mid-morning somehow became a chilled afternoon with alarming rapidity. The blue summer sky has bleached into the grey of autumn, with enormous thunderclouds approaching. Trees that should remain full and green for months to come are now skeletal, their fallen leaves long dead. Flowers that only blossom late in the year are now at full bloom. Time is speeding by at an impossible pace.

What he doesn’t notice, though, is no less disturbing: the sidelong glances thrown by his friends at the mention of his family, his home. Their barely-contained horror upon hearing his wife’s name when he christens his trail of pools “the Lucinda.” The frantic excuses they lob when Ned invites them to his place. What he doesn’t see, either because his mask of manhood blinds him or simply requires he avert his eyes, is the reality in which the others live and the ripples that his construct cannonballs through it.

III

“THERE’S NO WATER IN THE POOL”

“And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”

-Herman Melville, Moby Dick; or, The Whale

This desperate swim against the currents of time is a backstroked journey into Ned’s past, and the natives he encounters along the shoreline of the Lucinda are figures from his life. Together, these people form a rippling reflection of the real Ned, a reflection he is unable to see even as his face gets ever closer to its choppy surface. While he is able to (mostly) chortle and backslap with the men he encounters along the way, rehashing the same old nostalgic stories (“Remember how we used to take off our suits and swim for miles up that river? We just never got tired…We could’ve swum around the world in those days.”), it is the women along the Lucinda who finally break the mystery of Ned—who he claims to be, who he really is, and what he has done.

With Mrs. Westerhazy he is flirtatious and handsy; upon arrival at the second pool of the day, he startles Mrs. Graham by sneaking up from behind and slapping her ass in greeting. Within minutes, Ned is established as a serial womanizer, the kind of man who views himself as a good-natured and charming Casanova of the country club set, because what kind of man could he possibly be were his sexual appetite not advertised as voracious, unquenchable? But viewed with any eyes other than his own, Ned is a man both desperate to project an air of unbridled sexual energy and who views women as playthings set out for his enjoyment.

The first rupture in the chummy veneer of “Ned Merrill” occurs at the third pool, belonging to his old friend, the absent Eric Hammar. As Ned finishes his swim, Eric’s mother confronts him, demanding to know what gives him the right to use their pool. “I’m Ned Merrill,” he answers, as if this explains anything and gives him access to everything. Instead, Mrs. Hammar chastises him, seething “You never came to see him. You never even called him at the hospital.” For one beautifully performed moment, the mask of dazed cheer falls from Ned’s face, as if he has finally returned to reality—“Well, how is he? Is he…better?” he asks—before he falls back into a vortex of unreality again, rushing away from the truth Mrs. Hammar apparently presents him. In order to right himself, Ned literally footraces a stallion at a nearby horse ranch; like his quest to swim home, Ned creates for himself a ludicrous and unnecessary challenge to prove the power of his strength and virility. His is a particular type of masculine toxicity, one in constant need of renewal via conquests athletic or sexual.

Ned’s need for sexual conquest (or rather, his belief in that need) first becomes apparent with Julie Ann Hooper (Janet Landgard), a young woman who babysat Ned’s daughters when they were children. He woos her at the fourth pool of the day, delighting her with his quest. He latches onto her breezy infatuation, an old man recharged by youthful attention, and she agrees to swim the river with him. But when she admits to an intense schoolgirl crush on the pre-midlife Ned Merrill, everything changes.

Ned lurches into overdrive, running his body repeatedly through a horse circle, leaping over hurdles in a mad attempt to display his prowess to a woman half his age. His aging body fails him, though, and he badly sprains an ankle. Suddenly vulnerable, he pulls her to the ground in exhaustion. There she horrifies him with stories of sexually aggressive men who harass her at work, and he offers himself to protect her as a White Knight, all the while running his hand along her stomach, something she repeatedly—and forcibly—has to stop. Finally, as he professes to be her “guardian angel,” urgently pulling her face to his, Julie runs away, frightened and confused. Ned is left alone, limping, his body suddenly appearing 10 years older—his face haggard, puffed bags shadowing his eyes, his stomach a paunch, as if time is catching up.

~ ~ ~

If Julie is able to weaken the shell of “Ned Merrill” and make him vulnerable to time and reality, it is Shirley Abbott who cracks him open, who all but destroys the Man hiding the man. It is beside her pool, the second to last of the day, where so many truths about Ned and his ugly hypocrisies finally float to the surface.

In one explosive delivery after another, she verbally tears at Ned, who casually strolled into her backyard and kissed her feet as if he owned the place, owned her. Years before, she was his mistress and plaything, a women kept waiting in the shadows, waiting for Ned to leave his wife for her—which he never did. Despite her love for him, he “did the usual red-blooded married man thing” and cut her loose when she became too attached. She attacks his cowardice and hypocrisy as he limps around her, weak and cold from his journey, noting that he came from poverty and that it was Lucinda who was rich, and that it was Lucinda who eventually tossed Ned out of his “golden playpen.”Janice Rule and Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer | Columbia PicturesFinally she articulates the schism at the heart of Ned, forcing him to see it, as she remembers a heartbroken night in which she spied upon his family:

“You were meeting your family to take them to the ballet. I saw your daughters in their white gloves and patent-leather slippers, and that aging Vassar girl wife of yours in her understated little suit. And you, there you were, shaking hands with people, smiling, saying hello. One hour before that you’d been in bed with me. I put that smile on your face, you damned hypocrite!”

Shirley is the first along the Lucinda to articulate Ned’s cowardice, to shed light on who and what he was, who he pretended to be. Ned staggers, seemingly lost, and before leaving he says what may be his only true words of the day:

“Nothing’s turned out the way I thought it would. When I was a kid, I, I used to believe in things. People seemed happier when I was a kid. People used to love each other. What happened?…My mother gave me 25 cents for mowing the lawn around our house. Seems only a minute ago. I could smell the grass…It’s so fast…People grow up, and then they…We’re all gonna die, Shirley. That doesn’t make much sense, does it?”

~ ~ ~

Ned’s final lap takes him through the public pool at the county recreation center, where an angry crowd chases him into the woods like Frankenstein’s monster—these people remember Ned as a haughty bourgeoisie huckster, a man who lost his job and refused to pay his bills at their restaurants and grocery stores, the man who managed to keep his daughters’ names out of the papers when they got into drunken car crashes, the pathetic man who would party with teenagers, “always chumming around with all the kids, trying to be one of the gang,” the man whose daughters would mock him behind his back as a sad joke. Haggard, his shell of “Ned Merrill” now totally gone, his feet bloodied and torn, the skin of his face seeming to almost slough off his skull, Ned lurches away into the grey and wintry evening.

~ ~ ~

As old Ned Merrill finally approaches his mansion at the day’s end, under torrents of freezing rain, we see him through eyes of those who knew the real Ned: The small glad-handing poseur not half the superhero family man of his facade. The philandering husband, living off his wife’s wealth. A jobless letch who never pays his debts. A man whose wife left him, whose children have left drunken carnage in their wake (it’s easy to assume they are responsible for the injury—and possible death—of his friend Eric Hammar). A nobody who built for himself the toxically unreal persona of “Ned Merrill,” his damaged idea of a somebody.

For a time he was able to have this movie version of masculinity, until a cascade of events of his own making unraveled his cocoon of manhood, just as this day’s realities destroyed his attempt at rebuilding himself, his attempt to deny the realities of his past. In that way the film is nothing less than Ned’s life itself in microcosm: today we saw Ned come from nothing; saw him luck into the world of affluence and decadence; saw him craft a persona, a Man, to match the expectations of that world and to excuse his weaknesses and failings, and to shield him from the terrors of life and aging. As in life, time began to accelerate, going faster and faster as it approached the end. And as in his life, in the film of this day we see his excesses and lies become too fraudulent for nature to abide, and reality washes his uncanny self-image away in a tide no swimmer could survive. This strange day in the life for Ned is also his life collapsed in one day, and like all days, like all lives, it ends the same way.

~ ~ ~

Ned Merrill drowns in the deep end of his own shallow self-image of masculinity. And he does it, finally, at the steps of his own front door: When he finally reaches his home beneath a torrential winter storm, he finds that it is for sale, abandoned long ago. He pounds upon the locked door, moaning to be let in. Through the windows, one can see that the house holds nothing but a few crates of trash.

It’s easy to see Ned’s house as representing the past, a place of memories one can never return to, as Ned’s entire swim has been about returning to a past that no longer exists (if it ever did). But the house is also Ned himself—an empty vessel. A massive house rendered uncanny by its monumental emptiness, so unnatural without a family to fill it with life. And so, covered in rain and overgrown vines, it is reclaimed by the nature it now stands against. Just like Ned. Just like everyone else when they die. It is for no small reason that The Swimmer’s marketing tagline was “When you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about yourself?”

So, again:

Is it a ghost story, with Ned haunting the pools and people of his past? An allegory for the journey through life? A country club retelling of the death of Narcissus by way of The Odyssey? A metaphoric deconstruction of postwar masculinity?

And so, again:

Maybe yes, maybe no, maybe some, maybe all of the above.

What can be known: Ned is last seen a slump-shouldered ruin amongst the ruins, tearfully moaning and pawing at his abandoned crypt of a home. In ways he never thought possible—because “I’m Ned Merrill” and thus immortal and all-powerful—Ned fits here now, with this home. Not in the nostalgic way he had hoped, in the way he thought his own chlorine-and-concrete Odyssey would earn him, but as he truly is: he’s an outwardly attractive empty house, full of nothing but stories of what he once was or could have been, boxes of trash and memories. When he sees the house, he sees, finally, a reflection of the swimmer. And when he sees the swimmer, he sees himself.