“Showing off is the fool’s idea of glory.” — Bruce Lee
Wise words from Bruce Lee, the athlete, actor and sage of martial arts, or are they in fact hypocritical utterances that expose an arrogant underbelly to the legacy of an iconic life? This is the question that Quentin Tarantino has posed ever since the release of his 2019 film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a picture that featured an actor posing as the influential figure being humiliated by Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth during a fight.
“Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy,” Tarantino stated in an interview with Radar Magazine, a response to his own controversial comments at a press event in Moscow where he explained the depiction of Lee in his film, adding: “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”. This claim was quickly disputed by Shannon Lee, the daughter of the classic martial artist, who angrily responded: “It was really uncomfortable to sit in the theatre and listen to people laugh at my father”.
Continuing, Shannon Lee stated: “What I’m interested in is raising the consciousness of who Bruce Lee was as a human being and how he lived his life. All of that was flushed down the toilet in this portrayal, and made my father into this arrogant punching bag”. This back-and-forth between Bruce Lee’s daughter and Quentin Tarantino has been raging since the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood two years ago, with Lee recently penning an open letter to the director elaborating her disgust. Though, whilst Bruce Lee is certainly remembered as a philosophising fighter, the pitfalls of his character are rarely explored and, whilst Tarantino’s words are certainly inflammatory, they aren’t entirely unfounded.
Popularising martial arts movies in the 1970s, Bruce Lee was known for his calm, relaxed demeanour, particularly in the face of threat; batting away enemies with a stiff arm and a cold glare. In reality, though, Lee carried a fierce temper, with himself admitting in an interview: “I do have a bad temper, a violent temper, in fact!”. It’s also something Shannon Lee recalls about her father, recognising that “he wanted things a certain way and he had high standards and sometimes he could lose it”.
This often led the actor into some very public outbursts, famously losing his temper in October 1964 during a martial arts demonstration as a young man. During the class, his famous one-inch punch failed to move his target and Lee was subjected to several heckles from the crowd. Reports say the actor quickly reached the limits of his temper as he ranted at the crowd of onlookers, challenging anyone in the crowd to fight him, claiming he was “the best fighter in San Francisco”.
Through some necessary consideration, Lee was able to wrangle his temper by use of self-reflection, philosophically stating: “I must give up my desire to force, direct, strangle the world outside of me and within me in order to be completely open, responsible, aware, alive”.
Anger wasn’t the actor’s only issue, however, with a questionable personal life that favoured frivolity and a desire for popularity in his Hollywood circles. This may well have led the actor to view life through a skewed lens, subsequently being unfaithful to his long-term wife, Linda Emery, in favour of Chinese actress Betty Ting Pei with the two dating for a number of years despite his marital status.
With all this considered, is it not the journey of life that moulds us all as individuals? Recognising his own temper as a flaw, Lee worked to self-improvement, reflecting on his actions and growing a fondness for gentleness.
Bruce Lee’s self-confidence and endless ambition may certainly seem arrogant, it may even come across as petulant but, ultimately, he is also human. Despite the sagacious utterances of his own enlightened philosophy, he is too subject to the same primal desires and urges of us all. Should his actions tarnish his legacy? Absolutely not.
After all, Quentin Tarantino is used to a rant or two.