December 2, 2022

Why the Bruce Lee Fight in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Became the Movie’s Most Controversial Scene (Read More)

once Upon a Time in Hollywood earned Quentin Tarantino his best opening weekend box office ever—exceeding forecasts despite being a nearly three-hour long R-rated film that opened while the Lion King remake was still holding strong. But despite also being well received by critics, the film has provoked debate. Its treatment of women has been scrutinized; female characters receive brutal beatings but little dialogue. And one single scene has also been the subject of heated controversy. Now, with Tarantino again speaking about the scene in an appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience, the controversy is back in the news.

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Here’s a guide to the debate over the movie’s fight scene between real-life actor and martial arts legend Bruce Lee, played by Mike Moh, and Brad Pitt’s character, fictional stuntman Cliff Booth. What happens in the movie? In the film, Pitt’s character, Booth, has a flashback while repairing a TV antenna for his boss and best friend, Leonardo DiCaprio’s also-fictional western star Rick Dalton. While on Dalton’s roof, Booth remembers an encounter with Bruce Lee on the Green Hornet set. In the memory, Moh’s Lee holds court among stuntmen and crew members, giving a pompous speech and saying that if he fought Cassius Clay, as legendary fighter Muhammad Ali was still often called in the ‘60s, he’d “make him a cripple.” This elicits chuckles from Pitt’s Booth, who calls Lee “a little man with a big mouth and a big chip,” who “should be embarrassed to suggest [he’d] be anything more than a stain on the seat of Cassius Clay’s trunks.”

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Lee proposes a three-round fight to see which man can put the other “on his butt.” In the first round, Lee kicks Booth squarely in the chest, flooring him. He then attacks with a second flying kick, but Booth catches him and hurls him into a car. Before the match can be settled in the third and final round, the two men are interrupted, and Booth is fired for the fight. Flashing back to the present, a Booth still on Dalton’s roof declares his dismissal “fair enough.” Was the scene accurate? Lee did star in The Green Hornet, as the crime fighter’s sidekick and valet, Kato. But according to Lee biographer Matthew Polly, the scene was inaccurate in many ways. Lee “revered” Muhammad Ali, Polly told Esquire. “So the part in the movie where the Lee character says he would ‘cripple’ [the boxer] and Brad Pitt’s character comes to Ali’s defense is not only completely inaccurate, it turns Lee into a disrespectful blowhard and jerk.”
And while Lee was known to have fought stuntmen on some of his sets once he returned to Hong Kong, “he never started the fights, they always came up to him and challenged him,” Polly says.

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He also always defeated these challengers handily, with their fights ending within 20 seconds. Lee also had a reputation for being kind to lower-ranking members of the cast and crews of the projects on which he worked. “Bruce was very famous for being very considerate of the people below him on film sets, particularly the stuntmen. He would often like buy them meals, or once he got famous, take them out to eat, or hand them a little extra cash, or look after their careers,” says Polly. “So in this scene, Bruce Lee is essentially calling out a stuntman and getting him fired because he’s the big star. And that’s just not who Bruce Lee was as a person.” Why do some people have a problem with it? Despite having some basis in reality, Once Upon a Time is a fictional work—its ending proves that much.

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But Lee, who died in 1973, was a real-life person, and is still beloved worldwide as the most influential martial artist ever, and as one of the most iconic Asian American movie stars. He braved Hollywood’s racism and became a global superstar, decades before the American film industry would begin to improve upon its historically bigoted and emasculating depiction of Asian men. In short, his legacy is worthy of the respectful good taste with which Tarantino treats the other real-life figures that appear in the film, including Manson victims Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring, and Lee’s fellow Hollywood legend Steve McQueen. But Moh’s Lee is written as a bloviating ass whose presence was played for laughs and to give Booth’s character credibility as a skilled fighter. And while the fight is technically a draw, Booth loses his round with a pretty dignified fall on his butt—while Lee is thrown into a car by an anonymous, middle-aged stuntman.

Doung Seyha

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