Quentin Tarantino defended his portrayal of Bruce Lee in “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” after Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, said the portrayal of her father was “disheartening” and “uncomfortable.”
In an exclusive interview with TheWrap, Shannon Lee objected Tarantino for portraying Lee as “an arrogant asshole.” But speaking to reporters in Moscow on Monday, Tarantino said his portrayal was fair.
“Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy,” Tarantino told reporters. “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.”
In the film, Brad Pitt’s stuntman character, Cliff Booth, trades cocky insults with Bruce Lee. At one point, Lee is prodded into saying he could beat Muhammad Ali.
The exchange leads to a two-out-of-three-rounds fight between the pair in which Lee easily knocks Booth down in the first round, only to be slammed into a car by Booth in the second. The fight is interrupted before the third round.
“I understand they want to make the Brad Pitt character this super bad-ass 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 Lee said.
“He comes across as an arrogant asshole who was full of hot air,” she said. “And not someone who had to fight triple as hard as any of those people did to accomplish what was naturally given to so many others.”
Tarantino said Lee’s boast in the film that he would beat Ali came from reading a biography written by Lee’s widow, Linda, in 1975.
“If people are saying, ‘Well he never said he could beat up Mohammad Ali,’ well yeah, he did,” said Tarantino. “Alright? Not only did he say that, but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography I ever read. She absolutely said that.”
A 1987 biography of Lee written by Robert Clouse, who directed Lee in “Enter the Dragon,” said that Lee said the exact opposite. Clouse said that during Ali’s reign as heavyweight champion, Bruce closely studied the boxer’s moves, even setting up a projection screen opposite a wide mirror so he could imitate the motions Ali made during his title fights.
“Bruce knew he could never win a fight against Ali,” Clouse wrote. “‘Look at my hand,’ he said. ‘That’s a little Chinese hand. He’d kill me.'”
Matthew Polly, author of “Bruce Lee: A Life,” said on Twitter that Tarantino was likely referencing Linda Lee quoting a critic.
WRONG: Linda was quoting a TV critic. “Even the most scathing critics admitted that Bruce’s gungfu was sensational. One critic wrote: ‘Those who watched him would bet on Lee to render Cassius Clay senseless if they were put in a room and told that anything goes.” (pg. 88) (3/11)
— Matthew Polly (@MatthewEPolly) August 12, 2019
He cited a passage from a passage from Linda Lee’s “Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew”: “Even the most scathing critics admitted that Bruce’s gungfu was sensational. One critic wrote: ‘Those who watched him would bet on Lee to render Cassius Clay senseless if they were put in a room and told that anything goes.”
Tarantino said he depicted Bruce Lee getting beaten up by Cliff Booth to establish Booth as a dangerous individual.
“It’s a fictional character. If I say Cliff can beat Bruce Lee up, he’s a fictional character so he could beat Bruce Lee up. The reality of the situation is this: Cliff is a Green Beret. He has killed many men in WWII in hand to hand combat. What Bruce Lee is talking about in the whole thing is that he admires warriors. He admires combat, and boxing is a closer approximation of combat as a sport. Cliff is not part of the sport that is like combat, he is a warrior. He is a combat person.”
Watch Tarantino’s remarks in the clip above.