Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) is already yelling when we meet him in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood. Appearing in a hazy flashback in which stuntman-turned-unofficial-valet Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) recalls — possibly unreliably — the day his professional career took a turn for the worse, Lee stalks around a backlot touting his abilities, noting that he’s had to register his hands as lethal weapons, and generally holding court for an audience of fellow professionals. Unimpressed, Cliff mildly taunts him and the taunt quickly escalates into a physical challenge, even though Lee really should have nothing to prove. Yet he does. He always had something to prove. Having something to prove defined his career.
The scene takes place between takes on an episode of The Green Hornet, the TV series whose single 1966-1967 season provided Lee an entry into Hollywood. The show could also easily have been the end of the line, something the Lee in Tarantino’s film undoubtedly fears (a fear Cliff’s insistence on calling him “Kato,” his Green Hornet character’s name, reinforces). Set primarily in 1969, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood focuses on three characters who wonder if they’ve hit walls in their careers. As the film opens, Cliff’s pretty much forgotten about being a stuntman, and his boss and near-constant companion Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) has watched his movie career fizzle after the conclusion of his popular western series Bounty Law. Rick’s next-door neighbor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) has enjoyed more recent success without quite becoming a top-tier star. She can walk into a theater playing one of her own movies and go unrecognized, which is both a blessing and a cause for some anxiety. They all exist in professional gray zones, unclear about what’s next.
He plays a much smaller role, but Lee’s presence in the film is no accident. Though it takes place outside the confines of the movie, he’s living a parallel story. Lee senses his own gray zone approaching. Within a few years, he’ll become one of the biggest stars in the world — which he always knew he could be — but only by setting off on his own and leaving Hollywood behind.
The years after The Green Hornet were particularly difficult for Lee. Matthew Polly’s engrossing recent biography Bruce Lee: A Life details a period in which one frustration followed another. The personal appearance fees that Lee landed for appearing in costume as Kato dried up. He passed up a potentially lucrative chance to head up a franchise of “Kato Karate Schools” because he feared it would water down the Jeet Kune Do approach he’d created. At the suggestion of his friend, hairstylist-to-the-stars Jay Sebring — who’d initially steered him toward Hollywood by introducing him to Green Hornet producer William Dozier — he’d found a new way of making money by serving as a private instructor to the rich and famous, some of whom, like James Coburn and Steve McQueen, became personal friends. But for all the success Lee met as a teacher, he struggled as an actor, taking bit parts and watching an ambitious project he tried to launch with Coburn and In the Heat of the Night screenwriter Stirling Silliphant fizzle out. When an injury took him out of the game in 1970, Lee and his wife Linda had trouble making ends meet, prompting Linda to take a job, much to Lee’s frustration. Not that he wasn’t used to frustration by then.
Then a funny thing happened: Visiting Hong Kong, where he came of age, to secure a visa for his mother, he found himself greeted as a hero. In Hong Kong, he was a star. A talk show appearance caught the attention of Chinese producers, which led to The Big Boss (alternately known as Fists of Fury), his first film for Hong Kong’s blossoming film industry. The shoot wasn’t without its frustrations, but the film allowed Lee to be Lee. To watch The Big Boss is to see the actor coming into his own, at last, as the center of the action in set pieces constructed around his extraordinary skills. He became a box office sensation first in Asia then in the rest of the world. Watching Lee — as charismatic and balletic a star as ever lived — this seems inevitable. But it never would have happened in Hollywood.
Perhaps the Lee of Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood seems frustrated because he already knows this. And for as warm as Tarantino’s film is in depicting Hollywood at the end of the 1960s, it’s also a film about how the industry can’t always create art worthy of the artists who work in it. Dalton is, in the unkindest estimation, a has-been cowboy actor struggling to hang on, but the film also reveals he has serious acting chops that are being wasted in guest spots and B-movies. In 1967, Playboy ran a profile that opened, “This is the year that Sharon Tate happens.” And though she found some success — and who can say what might have been had she lived — she’d never truly happened by 1969. (Sebring, who died alongside Tate, also introduced Lee to Tate and Polanski. As seen in Tarantino’s film, Lee helped Tate learn martial arts for The Wrecking Crew and counted Polanski among his private clients. In one grief-clouded, misguided moment, Polanski even briefly suspected that Lee might be responsible for Tate’s death.)
Lee matches that pattern of Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood’s main characters, but there’s even more at work. Hollywood isn’t filled with leading parts for Asian actors now, but had even less to offer in the 1960s. Put simply, there were no A-list Asian movie stars in Hollywood, which wasn’t in the habit of making showcases for even the most talented martial artists. Lee brushed elbows with the rich and famous but remained on the outside looking in. He essentially had to turn himself into an in-demand import item for the American film industry to understand his potential. Unfortunately, it only had time to do that for one movie, the Warner Bros.-produced 1973 film Enter the Dragon, which was released to tremendous success after Lee’s unexpected death at the age of 32.
Enter the Dragon made Lee one of the cinematic icons of the 1970s, even if he didn’t live long enough to see his potential realized. But all that’s ahead of him in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, and for Lee that success required him to leave the dreamland depicted in Tarantino’s film to become the star he knew he could be working under far less glamorous conditions in Asia.
Tarantino paints the Hollywood of 1969, which he knows from the stories of others and the L.A. he lived in a child, in warm, affectionate tones. It’s wondrous place where storytellers make dreams come true, but also a place of trap doors from which only the nimblest can escape. If the film’s Lee seems quick to anger, it’s because he’s kept his eyes open.
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film, television, and other aspects of popular culture. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter and does not currently moonlight as a masked vigilante. Find him on Twitter @kphipps3000.