WARNING: This article contains SPOILERS for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood includes a Bruce Lee cameo, but it's caused quite a controversy. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes place in 1969 Los Angeles and explores the conflict between movie industry veterans and the counterculture movement. For dramatic purposes, Tarantino uses the infamous Manson Family as a sub-plot. As a whole, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood shows L.A. professionals grasping for fame and respect. Lee’s cameo pinpoints the skills that made him famous, and also his entrance into the Hollywood movie industry. But really, it helps develop Pitt's character arc.
At one point in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Pitt's stuntman Cliff Booth agrees to fix Rick Dalton's TV antennae while the actor is busy working on a project. This comes shortly after Dalton told Booth that it was essentially impossible to get him a job on set because Kurt Russell's Randy was the stunt coordinator, and Cliff and Randy don't have a great relationship. That's when Cliff has a memory about when they last worked together: on the set of The Green Hornet.
Although it wasn't immediately made clear that Cliff was recalling a memory (or perhaps a memory that turned into a daydream), the scene is still Mike Moh's main cameo as Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Lee made his Hollywood debut as Kato in The Green Hornet in 1966, which means that Booth’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood memory - real or imagined - takes place in the not-so-distant past. At the time, Lee was trying to establish a Hollywood career. Portrayed by Moh, the future icon boasts on set about having to register his fists as “lethal weapons.” Unimpressed, Booth balks at the statement about Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), at which point Lee challenges him, and the two men agree to a friendly fight.
Booth gets kicked in the chest; Lee gets thrown into a car. The fight ends in a draw, interrupted by Randy and his wife, Janet (Zoë Bell). For Booth, it’s a moment of agony and ecstasy. He’d been warned not to upset Janet because she believes an industry-wide rumor that Booth killed his wife. Yet Booth realizes that he’s still able to compete with a young hot shot. This particular scene has drawn ire from audiences who feel that Lee had been misrepresented in the film. While that's possible, what's also likely is that Booth is showing up himself in the memory/dream. Perhaps he remembers it differently. After all, memories can be warped over time.
In real life, Lee trained celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring and Sharon Tate, both of whom were tragically murdered by the Manson family in 1969. In fact, Polanski reportedly spent many years believing that Lee was responsible for Tate's death. For Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Lee’s cameo establishes narrative authenticity and helps build the Cliff Booth myth. Rumors destroyed the fictional stuntman's reputation, but there’s no evidence in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood that Booth actually killed his wife. However, there is evidence that Booth fully believes in his skill set, and that he's relatively easy-going.
When Booth is pushed to extremes, he reacts appropriately, evidenced by the dramatic Spahn ranch sequence. Crucially, the Lee cameo and fight scene allows Tarantino to play with the audience by mixing facts with fiction. It’s a matter of perception, and what one wants to see. Bruce Lee wasn't a Hollywood icon in 1967 (though he certainly become one later), and Cliff Booth is never seen killing his wife in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.