Quentin Tarantino’s appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast has sparked fresh controversy over the director’s strange depiction of Bruce Lee in a scene from Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.
Most Tarantino films inevitably spark controversy upon release, as critics question his love of cartoonish hyper-violence, or his tone-deaf depictions of racism. But the dust had long settled on the infamous Bruce Lee scene, and Rogan’s questioning provoked a surprisingly defensive response, igniting new controversy.
The scene in question shows Brad Pitt’s character, Cliff, daydreaming about the time he provoked Bruce Lee into a fight. Lee, played by Mike Moh, is depicted as extremely cocky and aggressive – Cliff manages to humiliate the martial arts legend by throwing him against a car, but the fight is broken up before a true winner can be declared.
Reportedly, Tarantino originally intended for Cliff to win the fight outright, but revised the scene after stunt coordinator Robert Alonzo and Pitt himself pushed back against the idea.
The scene is based on a real confrontation between Lee and a stuntman named Gene LeBell, who did manage to beat Lee in a scuffle. But instead of being resentful, Lee ended up befriending LeBell, even incorporating LeBell’s grappling techniques into his own routine.
Now, the Hollywood scene was never considered a respectful depiction of Lee, but most fans interpreted the scene as harmless fun, another one of Tarantino’s ahistorical flights of fantasy. And considering that Tarantino has paid homage to Lee in several of his films, it seemed likely that the scene wasn’t intended to make a mockery out of Lee; many even assumed the scene took place entirely in Cliff’s imagination.
But when Tarantino launched into an explanation on Rogan’s podcast, those charitable interpretations faded away, as Tarantino made it explicitly clear that he thought of Lee as arrogant, a bit overrated, and viewed Lee as disrespectful toward American stuntmen, citing a biography of Lee by Matthew Polly. Polly soon tweeted a clarification stating that Tarantino’s statement was factually incorrect. Polly tweeted:
“It wasn’t an issue of disrespect but a difference in fight choreography philosophy and style.”
But Tarantino didn’t stop there – as the podcast continued, Tarantino, unprovoked, continued to bring up claims made by Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, repeatedly dismissing her as a “liar.”
Initially, the rebuttal seemed like a typical Tarantino attempt to be edgy, but as the director continued to dismiss her, and even made some odd statements about Lee himself, the idea that Tarantino nurses some kind of personal grudge against Lee became increasingly plausible. At one point, Rogan appeared deeply uncomfortable.
Of course, the Bruce Lee discussion became the main takeaway from the interview, spawning dozens of thinkpieces, hundreds of tweets expressing anger toward Tarantino, and a particularly thoughtful rebuke from Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee.
It’s difficult to view that scene in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood with ambiguity again; after Tarantino’s explanation, it seems obvious that Tarantino created an all-American badass, Cliff, to put Lee in his place. There isn’t much more to the scene than that.
David Lynch once said that to talk about art is to “reduce it” – perhaps Tarantino should have considered those wise words before appearing on the Joe Rogan Experience.