(Spoiler warning: Many details follow about the Quentin Tarantino movie Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and about Tarantino’s new novelization — especially about Bruce Lee and Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt.)
Yes, Bruce Lee and Cliff Booth really did fight – to the extent that you can say a fictional fight between a real martial arts star and a pretend Quentin Tarantino character really happened.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s some background: Tarantino angered some of Bruce Lee’s biggest supporters — notably his daughter, Shannon Lee — with a scene from Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood in which stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), fights a cocky Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on a studio backlot.
Some Tarantino fans, perhaps looking to de-escalate things, speculated that perhaps the fight was just a fantasy sequence by a daydreaming Cliff Booth.
But no: Tarantino’s brand-new novelization makes very clear that the fight between the real Bruce Lee and the fictional Cliff Booth really did happen — at least in Tarantino’s invented world. (The book drops the ellipses and is called simply Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.)
The scene in the movie begins with Bruce Lee, standing on a backlot, praising the fighting skills of Muhammad Ali. When someone asks who would win if he and Ali fought, he says it would never happen. But when pressed, he confidently declares, “I’d make him a cripple.”
Cliff Booth, one of several people listening, finds this funny. Lee takes offense, and they agree to a best two-out-of-three-falls fight. Lee knocks Booth down first, easily, and Booth then surprises Lee by hurling him into a car. The fight is broken up before the third fall, so it’s essentially a draw.
Shannon Lee first criticized the scene nearly two years ago when I interviewed her for TheWrap.
“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. … 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.”
But the novelization adds some context that’s missing from the film, since a novel can clue us in on a character’s inner thoughts in a way a movie usually can’t.
First, the novel illustrates that Cliff Booth disrespects Bruce Lee before even meeting him, and disparages him in jealous and homophobic terms.
The novel also makes very clear that during their fight, Lee is going easy on Booth, trying not to hurt him. He doesn’t come off as arrogant — he comes off as a smart, disciplined actor and fighter trying to stand up for himself without hurting Booth.
The book also makes clear that Booth is not paying the same courtesy to Lee. In fact, the narrator tells us that Booth is very familiar with best-two-out-of-three fights, and routinely lets his opponent knock him down first, so he can size him up while instilling a sense of overconfidence.
Tarantino, no surprise here, also offers a detailed description in the novel of where Lee was in his life and career at the time of the imagined fight, making him a more sympathetic character than some might find him to be in the film.
Soon after Shannon Lee criticized his film, Tarantino defended his portrayal of Bruce Lee, telling reporters: “Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy. 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. If people are saying, ‘Well, he never said he could beat up Mohammad Ali,’ well, yeah, he did. 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.”
Finally, Tarantino’s love of Bruce Lee shouldn’t be in doubt: Uma Thurman’s yellow suit in Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 is an homage to the yellow suit that Lee wore in the film Game of Death, which was given to him by Roman Polanski on a ski trip to Gstaad, Switzerland. (That trip gets a brief mention in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood novelization.)
Here is the Bruce Lee-Cliff Booth fight:
Main image: Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth and Mike Moh as Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.