The Deluded Optimism of Burt Lancaster
There's a point early in the film Come Back, Little Sheba in which Burt Lancaster's Doc/Daddy character waxes philosophic and spiritual over the changes he's experienced in his first year's sobriety. Lancaster, as he looks off into the distance of some undefined point in his kitchen and as maybe no other actor can do, is earnest, reflective, optimistic, and - in the audience's eyes - desperate and possibly deluded. The strapping, blue-eyed, grinning, wavy-haired Lancaster naturally exuded a certain American optimism, but it was optimism lacking in hope, as someone like Jimmy Stewart could project, and devoid of cockiness, as expressed in the optimistic characters of Tom Cruise. The optimism expressed by Burt Lancaster is painful; it's the optimism only a lifelong loser can muster.
Lancaster specialized in con men and idealistic losers, from The Rainmaker and Elmer Gantry through Birdman of Alcatraz and his own production of John Cheever's short story, The Swimmer, through his career-capping role in Atlantic City. Regarding Lancaster's performance in The Swimmer, Cheever wrote "He's very sexy and commanding in the girl scenes but half the time he looks as if he were going to cry which is just right for the part." Con man and optimist; it's a tragic pairing that Lancaster managed to play out in countless roles. I don't know much about the man's life, but I sense he was aware of our fate as starting out down in the count, no balls, one strike.