Kato’s Comeuppance

Tarantino unravels the Lee myth (Mythmaking in the martial arts, Part 5 Addendum)

I recently decided some of my longer addenda were actually stories of their own, and easier to find, track, etc., if broken out as such, especially since my addenda seem prone to sprouting addenda of their own. To anyone who has already seen them and have thus been gulled into clicking an article you have already seen, whatever, no bigs—in fact, why not give it another read? You might find something you missed last time.

This one that I’ve chosen to start with has gained new currency, perhaps, by its recent bagging of a pair of gold statues at the annual self-congratulatory party Hollywood likes to throw itself.

A couple of things came up for me while watching Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, some relating to the Manson murders, some to Bruce Lee, and some, surprisingly, to both. The first was the generally declining Hollywood system in the late ’60s and the growing focus on lowering budgets, including the Spaghetti Western, which main character Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) initially resists, but eventually performs in. As I’ve noted, this paralleled the rise of the Kung Fu genre.

And El Coyote. This is a great Mexican-American place that I try to visit whenever I’m in LA for their huge, tasty plates and margaritas. And I knew it was a longtime fixture of the area but had no idea that it’s actually approaching its 90th anniversary. Nor did I know that Sharon Tate and her pals ate there on the night before they were gruesomely murdered. With industry events like E3, my work with Disney, and my abortive partnership with David Lynch, among others, I’ve been to El Coyote many times, memories of which have a newly acquired spooky air.

Next I found out that Jay Sebring, who “discovered” Lee was also Tate’s boyfriend until she met Roman Polanski during the filming of Fearless Vampire Killers. She and Polanski later married but Sebring remained her close friend. Perhaps he was even the hookup for Lee as “Karate Advisor”, specifically for Tate’s scene in The Wrecking Crew, which also appears in the Tarantino movie. Sebring was with Tate when the Mason “family” came to her house and was also killed.

There’s a weird twist here that’s not covered in the Tarantino film, and which, let me be clear, I give zero credence: some, including Polanski, believed Lee was responsible for Tate’s death. The link is paper thin and I only mention it for context. Polanski was a student of Lee’s and they saw each other the day afterwards at which time Lee mentioned he had lost his glasses. One of the clues left at the Tate-Polanski home was an unidentified pair of specs.

Finally, let’s get to the Bruce Lee scene as you might’ve known I would. The scene includes Lee (Mike Moh) idolizing Muhammad Ali and making claims about how a fight between them would go, which provokes derision from fictional stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and a subsequent three-round martial contest which is interrupted before it can be resolved.

Of course I’ve discussed Lee’s Ali obsession, as well as his loudmouthed braggadocio. The Ali stuff appears on film while the latter aspect of Lee’s personality can easily be gleaned from his interviews, as well as the firsthand comment from a coworker that, “No one liked him […]”. Cliff’s scoffing at Lee’s swaggering reflects IRL stuntman Gene Lebell’s comments, and the fight even shows what he specifically suggests would happen in a fight between Lee and someone larger. The format of the combat suggested by the film’s Lee is additionally reminiscent of that between Lee and Vic Moore at the 1967 Long Beach tournament.

It would far be too self-flattering to think Tarantino had read this series of articles, but it does seem clear that he drew from some of the same sources I did for his portrayal of Lee. And clearly Tarantino had previously been a fanboy, dressing the Bride (Uma Thurman) in a black-and-yellow tracksuit and Onitsukas in 2003’s Kill Bill: Volume 1, a clear homage to Lee’s outfit in Game of Death, so something more recent must than that have caused a crisis in his faith.

Tarantino also engages in some anachronism; presenting a fully fledged groovy Lee complete with the chicken noises he later made his signature, but in the time period depicted he wasn’t remotely a star, just a minor actor playing a sidekick on a soon-to-tank small-screen supeshow—far closer to the square early Lee of his first screentest.

Devotees of St. Lee were naturally quite upset by the film’s sacrilegious portrayal as were legacy owners Linda Lee Cadwell and Shannon Lee, the latter quickly and predictably responding,

“ […] he was picked on [by the film] in the way that he was picked on in life by white Hollywood.”

Still, even this controversy serves to renew interest in Lee, just as films about how rotten the movie biz is ultimately only serve to expand its myth.


Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Bruce Lie

Part 2: Enter the Tycoon

Part 3: Fists of Flim-Flam

Part 4: Urban Lee

Part 5: The Littlest Dragon

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