Quentin Tarantino Responds to 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Bruce Lee Controversy: Lee "Was Kind of An Arrogant Guy"

Who would have thought that in a film which ostensibly involved the Manson murders, one of the biggest talking points weeks later would center on Bruce Lee? Quentin Tarantino‘s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood features Lee in a small role (played by actor Mike Moh), and after the film was released, Lee’s daughter objected to the way her father was depicted on screen.

There’s been a lot of discussion about that character’s portrayal in the film, and at a recent press conference in Moscow, Tarantino himself weighed in on the Bruce Lee controversy – but he may have just dug himself a slightly deeper hole.

The Bruce Lee conversation surrounding this movie has become somewhat fraught: the scene is a vortex of discussions about Asian representation on screen, whether a cinematic icon has been given the proper amount of respect, and why Tarantino chose to use Lee in the first place, just to name a few. Lines have already been drawn in the sand, and assuming you’ve seen the film and have thought about that moment after you left the theater, you’ve probably already crystallized your feelings on it. Still, I was interested in what Tarantino had to say, and I suspect many of you are, too.

“Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy,” Tarantino said. “The way he was talking, I didn’t just make a lot of that up. I heard him say things like that to that effect. If people are saying, ‘Well he never said he could beat up Muhammad Ali.’ Well, yeah, he did. Alright? Not only did he say that, but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her – the first biography I ever read was Linda Lee’s Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew, and she absolutely said it.”

Sure, it’s technically possible that Lee once claimed he could beat up Muhammad Ali, but an excerpt from the 1987 book The Making of Enter the Dragon says otherwise. Here’s an excerpt from that book:

Another time Yeung, aka [Bolo] went to see Bruce at Golden Harvest Studios. Bruce was screening a Cassius Clay [Muhammad Ali] documentary. Ali was world heavyweight champion at the time and Bruce saw him as the greatest fighter of them all. The documentary showed Ali in several of his fights. Bruce set up a wide full-length mirror to reflect Ali’s image from the screen. Bruce was looking into the mirror, moving along with Ali.

Bruce’s right hand followed Ali’s right hand, Ali’s left foot followed Bruce’s left foot. Bruce was fighting in Ali’s shoes. “Everybody says I must fight Ali some day.” Bruce said, “I’m studying every move he makes. I’m getting to know how he thinks and moves.” Bruce knew he could never win a fight against Ali. “Look at my hand,” he said. “That’s a little Chinese hand. He’d kill me.”

It’s worth pointing out that author Matthew Polly, who wrote the biography Bruce Lee: A Life, disputes Tarantino’s claim about Linda Lee’s comment:

That logic echoes what I personally believe to be the point of including Lee in this film at all: what stunt coordinator Robert Alonzo described as the purpose of the scene, which was to “explain to the audience the level at which Cliff was [operating].” But again, that’s just my take: everyone will have their own opinions on this, and it’s absolutely fair to think that the intention of the scene wasn’t translated well in the execution.

Tarantino finished by saying this:

“The reality of the situation is this: Cliff is a Green Beret. He has killed many men in World War II in hand to hand combat. He is a killer. What Bruce Lee is talking about in the whole thing? Is what he admires are warriors. What he admires is combat, and boxing is a closer approximation of combat as a sport than martial arts tournaments are. Cliff is not part of the sport that is like combat, he is a warrior. He is a combat person. So if Cliff were fighting Bruce Lee in a martial arts tournament in Madison Square Garden, Bruce Lee would kill him. But if Cliff and Bruce Lee were fighting in the jungles of the Philippines in a hand-to-hand combat fight, Cliff would kill him.”

Again, I’m not sure this is going to change anyone’s mind about the scene at this point, but I encourage you to read our own Hoai-Tran Bui’s thoughts about it, and listen to the /Film Daily spoiler conversation about the film for more on our complicated feelings about this scene.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in theaters now.

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