As soon as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood hit theaters, it predictably became a lightning rod for controversy — a time-honored tradition for nearly every film directed by Quentin Tarantino. Some controversies were less valid than others, but one that hit particularly hard was a flashback sequence to a fight between Brad Pitt‘s aging stuntman Cliff Booth and martial arts icon Bruce Lee (Mike Moh).
The scene was criticized by members of the Asian-American community and by Lee’s daughter herself, who condemned the film for treating Lee “in the way that white Hollywood did when he was alive.” But it turns out that the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Bruce Lee scene had an alternate ending that would have been even more controversial.
Spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood below.
In a flashback sequence in which Cliff ponders why he has become a pariah in the stunt world, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood shows Lee boasting about his martial arts skills to a captive audience on the set of Green Hornet. Among that audience is Cliff, who scoffs at Lee’s claims and pokes fun at him. Incensed, Lee challenges Cliff to a fight, with Lee winning the first round before Cliff bests him in the second, damaging a car door in the process. The fight is broken up before a clear “winner” is declared, but according to stunt coordinator Robert Alonzo, the scene originally didn’t end there. Speaking with the Huffington Post, Alonzo revealed that the original scene ended with Cliff emerging as the clear winner. The Huffington Post writes:
Round 3 of the fight would have been a much longer battle in which both men kept going at each other, with Cliff eventually making what Alonzo called a “cheap-shot move” that put Bruce on his butt. But the point wasn’t to turn Bruce into the underdog, Alonzo told Tarantino. Rather, it was simply to “explain to the audience the level at which Cliff was [operating].” So Tarantino agreed to have the Green Hornet stunt coordinators break up the brawl before the third round, meaning no proper victor could be declared.
Seeing Bruce Lee reduced to being the butt of a joke in the film was difficult enough, but watching an extended version of that scene in order to show off Cliff Booth’s abilities would have been so much worse. The scene has been interpreted multiple ways since the film’s release: It was a misremembered tall tale that highlighted Cliff’s nature as an unreliable narrator; it was Tarantino’s way of “humanizing” a martial arts idol; it was the metaphorical face-off between old and new Hollywood.
But from what we’ve learned of the original scene, it seems like Tarantino’s intent was solely to take down a Hollywood icon while elevating his own fictional character so as to make the film’s violent third act more believable. And while I’m all for taking Hollywood icons down a peg, it plays differently when it’s Bruce Lee, a rare rising Chinese star at a time when Asian roles were still mostly exoticized or demonized — when they weren’t cartoonish caricatures. Lee himself was faced with years of discrimination, and didn’t achieve his current level of worldwide fame until after his death. In this brief scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — notably the only speaking scene by a person of color in the film — Moh performs an admirable impression of Lee, but one that reads like a caricature because of the way that Cliff pokes fun at his exaggerated expressions and imitates his signature noises. It’s a scene that has rightfully earned criticism from the Asian-American community, who have only recently begun to see themselves properly represented onscreen — even if examples of yellowface were still abundant only three years ago. The original scene would have been criticized tenfold, something that Alonzon, who himself is Asian-American, was sensitive to, he told the Huffington Post:
“I know that Brad had expressed his concerns, and we all had concerns about Bruce losing. Especially for me, as someone who has looked up to Bruce Lee as an icon, not only in the martial-arts realm, but in the way he approached philosophy and life, to see your idol be beaten is very disheartening. It really pulled at certain emotional strings that can incite a little anger and frustration as to how he’s portrayed. … There’s a certain mythology and mysticism about who Bruce Lee is, which is understandable. Being an Asian American myself, I definitely related to how Bruce was a symbol of how Asians should be portrayed in movies, instead of the old Breakfast at Tiffany’s model that was really prevalent back in the day. … I had a difficult time choreographing a fight where he lost. Everyone involved was like, ‘How is this going to go over?’ Brad was very much against it. He was like, ‘It’s Bruce Lee, man!’”
Tarantino’s original version of the scene makes me wonder: Why Bruce Lee? Was it because he was the most significant martial arts star of the day? Was it because Tarantino famously idolizes him? Or was it just because he was super freaking strong? If Tarantino simply wanted a famous strongman celebrity for Cliff to take down to prove his absurd manliness, why not another action star? As the scene it, it feels like an uncomfortable jab at a human being who never got to see himself become an icon, or a joke.
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