Of all the great white male midlife crisis epics, outside of TV's MAD MEN, who can beat the Burt Lancaster-starred adaptation of John Cheever's short story, THE SWIMMER? The recent Time Magazine cover lauding Jonathan Franzen as the literary canon's next great white hope sent a shock through the up and coming, young, brilliant and angry writing community as yet another middle-aged white male of means got noticed writing about mid-life crises, college tenure boondogles, car accidents that leave multi-generational ripples over sprawling families that interact with colorful characters and dialogue that makes everyone right down to the precocious daughter sound like the same pithy writer in love with his own voice. But the joke is on the old, not the young. Time Magazine is grasping at the last straw in the arsenal for keeping awake their dwindling upper middle class white male readership (1). The lionizing search for the next great white hope, the Norman Mailer, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or John Cheever is not unlike the drowning grasp of the Swimmer himself.
What's great about the 1968 adaptation of Cheever's THE SWIMMER, then, is how morbidly aware it is of the absurdity of such lionization. Where the lionizers massage and whisper ribald limericks it digs into the nasty heart of white male 'pride of ownership' and finds the rotting crotch within. This crotch wrings especially true after first going through a few episodes of MAD MEN: Don Draper and the mourning of all the sexism, racism, high-functioning alcoholism, and other -isms that we're technically 'glad' are gone-- but man, we've been so busy this decade cleaning things up--Times Square, indoor smoking, workplace sexual harassment, public dancing (forbidden in NYC), outdoor smoking, racial profiling, equal rights--that we've forgotten what we've lost: Burt Lancaster.
What happened? According to one disgruntled ex-friend of Burt's in THE SWIMMER: "You got tossed out of your golden playpen, that's what happened." As an entitled sexist white male myself, born in 1967, I grew up hearing racist, sexist and Polish jokes over parental cocktails, sitting on the couch beside them in awe, rushing to refill their drinks on request, blending the whiskey sour mix, smelling the sweet sugar sweat of hungover adults on Sunday mornings during the Dunkin Donuts run. It's built into me, along with second-hand smoke; it created me, and though I know it's all wrong I smoke nonetheless, and have an attitude of entitlement that is seldom effective. So when I see Burt in THE SWIMMER gradually sink into the deep end of illusion and time, I weep. The scene of his humiliation at the hands of the filthy ethnic grocers at the public pool especially wrankles. This is the ultimate in both comeuppance and validation of the class system the film is watching die. When the playing field is equal, the lowest common denominator always rules. Once you let the poor people in, your pool is officially a slum - it never works vice versa. On the other hand, maybe it's you who was the slum the whole time, Mr. Merrill!
"Ya wanna know what your kids thought of ya, Mr. Merrill?" the grocer says. "They thought you were a big joke!" Exemplifying the nouveu riche (they're the ones who have to tell you how much everything cost), they're like devouring birds who wolf down our swimming aficionado like one of Sebastian's baby turtles.
Standing forth from the fray and creating the film's most touching scene is Joan Rivers, playing just a guest covering her bad skin with more makeup at the ethnic ugly new money afternoon bash. She sees--just for a minute--a chance at something new and exciting by driving him off to a quick one. But before she can find her car keys it passes. Everyone But Lancaster meets before her is either oblivious or resentful but Joan is just lonesome and hung over, and her sad yet witty resilience creates a small oasis of realness in the downward spiral, like if Burt wanted he could just scram out of there, grab a fifth of vodka from the bar on their way past, hop in her BMW back down the river to the East 82nd street and shack up for a lost weekend... And he'd never have to get his well-deserved comeuppance. It's easy! I've done it a thousand times!
Never go back to the house, Burt. Never get out of the goddamned pool. Just grab the first boat that comes along. Absolutely goddamned right. Burt in THE SWIMMER, doesn't get in the boat, and it sails without him. The age of the great white sharky novel sinks as he pounds the iron doors of his golden playpen like its the locked steerage gate on the Titanic. His future is all used up. His key don't fit that lock on his door. Another mule has long ago kicked down his stall.
Released in 1968, THE SWIMMER is like the last helicopter out of hippie-swarmed Saigon. Burt swims backwards like a sperm whale who realizes there's a prophylactic fishing net ahead. But there's no going back, oh paragon, your day of slapping polyester asses and drinking the world into a hazy welcome mat is over. Swim to the sea, Cheever of Men, if it will have you, but know there's lots of other sharks fighting over every last late-night co-ed summer break swimmer, and for far too long you've coasted in a sea of spoonfed chum. Are your teeth sharp? Is your skin hard? Is your mouth a little weak? Are you smart? Or would you rather be a duck? Quack for us, Mr. Draper, quack a little dream... of Time.
1. My dad's subscribed to TIME all my life, and I grew up reading Richard Corliss and carbonizing my growth hormones via their pictures of Cheryl Tiegs and Charlie's Angels. It's informed my development for better or worse. I hate it but it's a part of me, that's a fact.