Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee is not happy about the way the martial arts legend was portrayed in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Quentin Tarantino’s ninth movie – which enjoyed a successful debut when it opened in theaters this past weekend – blends both fiction and fact to pay homage to the tail end of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The film features a flashback scene in which Brad Pitt’s stuntman character Cliff Booth reminisces about a run-in he had with Bruce Lee who is brought to life by actor Mike Moh of Marvel’s Inhumans fame.
In the scene, Booth and Lee come to blows on a studio backlot where the latter is in between filming episodes of The Green Hornet. The pair trade insults which leads to a brawl in which Booth gets the better of Lee and slams him into a car. Not only does Lee come across as pretty cocky - claiming at one point that he could turn heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali) into a “cripple” - the scene isn’t all that flattering about his martial arts prowess either, in how it implies a washed-up stuntman like Booth could defeat him.
The unflattering portrayal didn’t sit well with Lee’s daughter Shannon who revealed to The Wrap how “disheartening” it was to see her father depicted as “an arrogant asshole who was full of hot air” in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Shannon further stated that Lee’s portrayal was especially saddening considering that the movie’s late 1960s setting was a time in which non-white actors faced a lot of racism:
“I can understand all the reasoning behind what is portrayed in the movie. I understand that the two characters are antiheroes and this is sort of like a rage fantasy of what would happen… and they’re portraying a period of time that clearly had a lot of racism and exclusion. I understand they want to make the Brad Pitt character this super badass who could beat up Bruce Lee. But they didn’t need to treat him in the way that white Hollywood did when he was alive.”
Shannon also pointed out while Lee isn’t the only real-life star featured in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, others like Sharon Tate and Steve McQueen – played by Margot Robbie and Damian Lewis, respectively – were portrayed far more sympathetically than her father’s caricatural depiction. However, she did praise Moh’s performance and noted that he captured Lee’s mannerisms and voice well.
The Wrap also spoke with Bruce Lee biographer Matthew Polly who also disagreed with the way he was portrayed in Tarantino’s film. Polly noted that Lee was a massive fan of Cassius Clay and would never have dissed him the way Tarantino’s fictional version of him did. Moreover, Polly stated that “there wasn’t a stuntman in Hollywood fast enough” to get the better of him either. He does, however, offer an interesting theory about why Tarantino may have portrayed Lee in such an unflattering way:
“I suspect the reason Tarantino felt the need to take Bruce down a notch is because Lee’s introduction of Eastern martial arts to Hollywood fight choreography represented a threat to the livelihood of old Western stuntmen like Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who were often incapable of adapting to a new era, and the film’s nostalgic, revisionist sympathies are entirely with the cowboys.”
Whether or not Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s depiction of Lee was motivated by an artistic choice like the one outlined by Polly above, it still doesn’t look great that real-life white characters like Tate and McQueen fare better in their portrayals than one of the movie’s few non-white characters.
Source: The Wrap
- Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019) release date: Jul 26, 2019