Monday, June 22, 2009

The Wanderers: James Edwards

Years ago I watched Bright Victory for the first time on cable. As I watched it I thought what most people probably think while watching it: "Arthur Kennedy is really great in this! Too bad he didn't get used more often in quality lead roles."

Then I thought the second thing most people probably think: "The guy playing his friend is great too!"

That actor was James Edwards. It took me a moment or two to realize it was the same actor who had played the paralyzed Private Peter Moss in Mark Robson's Home of the Brave (1949). In that film, as well as Bright Victory, Edwards plays the "black man." He's not a character who happens to be black, but rather a character whose skin color is of vital importance to the plot. In fact, in the play Home of the Brave, upon which the movie is based, the character is Jewish but thanks to the 1948 legislation that desegregated the Armed Forces the character was changed to a black soldier to keep up with the headlines, even if it meant being completely historically inaccurate by placing a black soldier in the same unit as white soldiers in World War II.

Edwards' characters in both films are noble black characters suffering under an oppressive system of inequality. Thanks to the time these movies were made the messages are a bit heavy-handed, falling more on the side of Clifford Odets' obviousness than subtle, nuanced psychological study. But that's what makes Edwards so good in both. When the blunt points have been made up front it's up to Edwards to provide the subtext with a look, a tremor in the voice or a simple body movement. His performance in Home of the Brave is justly celebrated but in Bright Victory too, he excels with very little to work from.

Bright Victory tells the story of a blinded war veteran, Larry Nevins (Arthur Kennedy), going through rehabilitation at an Army hospital. While there, he befriends another blinded veteran undergoing the same rehabilitation, Joe Morgan (James Edwards). Neither one knows the race of the other and at one point someone mentions that some new soldiers from a Negro unit will be showing up soon. Kennedy is surprised to hear this, thinking it's an all-white hospital and soon uses the word that quickly establishes his race to Morgan, and by Morgan's reaction, his to Kennedy. The friendship ends there and the rest of the film is concerned with Larry Nevins' guilt and changing attitudes as he returns home and finds he cannot be with his family and friends anymore who have racist beliefs. In the end, he meets up with Morgan and asks if they can be friends again. As in the rest of the film, Edwards uses subtlety in the face of an unsubtle (but still good) script. The pause, the look on his face, a look that can be interpreted a thousand different ways, the look that says, "Can I trust this guy again? Should I tell him to 'go to hell?'" Edwards isn't given much to work with in Bright Victory (it is, in the end, Kennedy's movie through and through) but what he is given he works with in ways a lesser actor never could.

Edwards never became a big star, working steadily in small and sometimes bit parts, always strong, always reliable. A wanderer, taking whatever work he could get to satisfy his need to perform, to hone his craft. In her excellent piece on him at TCM, Moira Finnie wonders about the fact that Edwards never became a star.

While Edwards and Poitier both entered movies at the same time, it is possible that Poitier’s disarming manner was easier for audiences to relate to in that period. Perhaps too, Poitier was the more natural star, as his timely performance in Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones would prove, while Edwards was simply a good, hardworking actor whose potential would find only fitful expression.

Or maybe, at the time, there was room for just one "black actor" in Hollywood. Oh sure, others could get roles, like Edwards and Harry Belafonte, but only one could be a star. Hollywood often figures out a way to sell one performer as the genuine article (Marilyn Monroe) and everyone else as the knock-offs(Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren, Diana Dors) and it would appear no different here. Besides, it was the fifties and there weren't exactly a lot of roles for black actors and parts in which a black actor could be cast where race didn't matter were small, so once the big roles were filled by Poitier there wasn't much left for Edwards. Too bad, because as much as I like Poitier, I like Edwards better. It's an impossible comparison of course since Poitier had so many more roles to analyze and Edwards so few. Still, Edwards subtle gifts as an actor portray a confident and skilled artist less inclined to some of the histrionics Poitier sometimes fell victim to (and Edwards command of speaking dialogue naturalistically far outshone Poitier's). Of course, in a perfect world they would have both been stars but Edwards worked steadily nonetheless. His final role was that of General George Patton's valet in Franklin Schaffner's Patton (1970). Shortly after completing his work on the film, and before it was released, he died of a heart attack.

I like to think had he lived the seventies and the type of independent movies being made then would have afforded him the opportunity to explore roles that had never been available to him before. Either way, he established himself early on a hard-working actor dedicated to his craft on both the stage and film. He was a wanderer, a pioneer, a journeyman, a professional and, above all else, a damn fine actor.