If you haven’t seen Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood then none of this will make any sense to you so let me set the scene.
Once Upon a Time is a revenge fantasy of the sort that Tarantino is known for which mixes some invented characters with real life people who lived and worked in Hollywood in the late 1960s. The main characters are Tarantino inventions, a fading actor named Rick Dalton played by Leonardo DiCaprio and his long-time stunt double Cliff Booth who is played by Brad Pitt. In the film, Dalton lives next door to real life director Roman Polanski and his young wife Sharon Tate. While Dalton’s career is sliding Polanski and Tate are becoming successful and they essentially won’t give Dalton the time of day.
In real life, Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson family in August 1969 when she was 8 months pregnant. Tarantino’s film essentially imagines what might have happened if that murder had been prevented by Rick Dalton, his invented B-movie actor, and Cliff Booth, the stuntman with a history of violence. You could say this film does for the Manson family what Inglorious Bastards did for the Nazis.
With all that in mind, there’s a scene in the film which basically answers the question how tough is Cliff Booth? The scene takes place on a backlot where the show Green Hornet is being filmed. As you may know, the real star of that show wasn’t the titular character it was Kato played by Bruce Lee. So in this scene Bruce Lee is mouthing off and Cliff Booth laughs at him. They agree to a friendly contest to see who can knock the other one down two out of three times.
You can watch the full scene here if you haven’t seen it. It’s about six minutes long. The scene ends with Lee and Booth having scored one round each and the fight is broken up before we see who would actually win best two out of three. It doesn’t really matter because the point of the scene has been made, i.e. Tarantino’s stuntman character Cliff Booth is such a badass that he could hold his own with Bruce Lee in a street fight. So later on when he’s fighting off the Manson Family it’s more believable that he could do the things he does.
This week Tarantino published a novelization of the film and he recently appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast where he was asked about the Bruce Lee scene. Specifically Rogan said, “A lot of people felt as if you made Bruce Lee into an a**hole.” As you’ll see, Tarantino allows that Lee’s daughter has the right to be upset because “it’s her f**king father” but says anyone else complaining can “go suck a d**k.”
As the discussion goes on, Tarantino says that Lee could certainly have beat up his character Cliff Booth in a martial arts tournament but in a real life-or-death fight Booth would have killed him (meaning Lee). Here’s the excerpt from Joe Rogan’s show.
Well, as you can probably imagine, that didn’t go over well with Shannon Lee, Bruce’s daughter. Today the Hollywood Reporter published a piece in which she takes Tarantino to task for using her dad as a prop to make his fictional character look tough.
As you already know, the portrayal of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Mr. Tarantino, in my opinion, was inaccurate and unnecessary to say the least. (Please let’s not blame actor Mike Moh. He did what he could with what he was given.) And while I am grateful that Mr. Tarantino has so generously acknowledged to Joe Rogan that I may have my feelings about his portrayal of my father, I am also grateful for the opportunity to express this: I’m really fucking tired of white men in Hollywood trying to tell me who Bruce Lee was.
I’m tired of hearing from white men in Hollywood that he was arrogant and an asshole when they have no idea and cannot fathom what it might have taken to get work in 1960s and ’70s Hollywood as a Chinese man with (God forbid) an accent, or to try to express an opinion on a set as a perceived foreigner and person of color. I’m tired of white men in Hollywood mistaking his confidence, passion and skill for hubris and therefore finding it necessary to marginalize him and his contributions. I’m tired of white men in Hollywood finding it too challenging to believe that Bruce Lee might have really been good at what he did and maybe even knew how to do it better than them…
And while we’re at it, I’m tired of being told that he wasn’t American (he was born in San Francisco), that he wasn’t really friends with James Coburn, that he wasn’t good to stuntmen, that he went around challenging people to fights on film sets, that my mom said in her book that my father believed he could beat up Muhammad Ali (not true), that all he wanted was to be famous, and so much more….
Look, I understand what Mr. Tarantino was trying to do. I really do. Cliff Booth is such a badass and a killer that he can beat the crap out of Bruce Lee. Character development. I get it. I just think he could have done it so much better. But instead, the scene he created was just an uninteresting tear-down of Bruce Lee when it didn’t need to be.
The repetition of the line about “white men” and “white Hollywood” sort of sets my teeth on edge, to be honest. And movie reviewer Sonny Bunch thinks she just got the scene wrong:
— Sonny Bunch (@SonnyBunch) July 2, 2021
I actually think Shannon Lee has a point. The only purpose of this scene is to elevate this fictional character. In the process, Bruce Lee does come across as an arrogant braggart. He gets thrown into a car and the scene ends with another character saying Cliff Booth was “beating the s**t out of Bruce.” In fact, if you look really closely, you’ll see that Brad Pitt (aka Booth) gets the last solid hit in before the fight is interrupted. So even though the fight doesn’t end, the impression is that Lee was about to lose if it hadn’t been interrupted. And Lee is left arguing that he wasn’t getting beat up, making him once again look like a small man with a big mouth.
Was all of this necessary to build up the character or was Tarantino just enjoying tearing Lee down a bit? You can watch the scene below and make up your own mind. My own take is that while Lee wasn’t very big, he was very fast with both his hands and feet. If I have an issue with the veracity of this scene it’s mostly that I think a real fight with Bruce Lee would have happened at a very different tempo, one that a lot of tough guys would struggle to keep up with.
Update: Here’s Joe Rogan’s previous comments where he explains why he didn’t like the depiction of Bruce Lee in the movie. Rogan doesn’t argue that Lee would have won the fight, he argues that Lee wouldn’t have been an a-hole.
Update 2: Okay, one last update on this which comes via a tip on Twitter. This is apparently the real story of Bruce Lee’s interaction with a stuntman on the set of Green Hornet. It’s a lot more nuanced than the scene in Tarantino’s movie. In fact the guy who picked up Lee, Gene Lebell, still refers to Lee as the best martial artist of his time decades later. Nothing like kind of (apparently mutual) respect came through in the film.