Believe it or not, I saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood when it first came out. Not only that, I had written an essay about it not too long afterward. However, for some reason, I found myself fumbling in my impressions of the movie, so rather than try to force myself to complete the essay, I left it in draft mode, where it languished for years.
Normally, when I have that much trouble formulating my thoughts on a movie for this long, I delete the draft. However, instinct told me not to, so it just sat there waiting to be completed. Then, as luck would have it, something huge happened that caused me to revisit the draft and finally put my thoughts into focus. That something was the Bruce Lee controversy, which became even bigger in 2021 than it did when the movie was first released.
Like everyone else back in 2019, I had seen the infamous scene when stuntman Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt) soundly thrashes Bruce Lee backstage. At the time, I wasn’t really angered or outraged by the scene. If anything, I was confused by the angry reactions to it, because I had brushed it off as a typical Tarantino moment. By “moment,” I mean that over the years, the director has become self-indulgent to the point of silliness. If you’ve seen enough of his movies, you’ll know what I’m talking about: there’s always been that one scene or plot point that comes across as an ADHD-afflicted 16-year-old neckbeard who’s had one too many energy drinks while trying to finish his assignment for English class.
As much as I can’t stand these self-indulgent flare-ups (*cough cough* Bear Jew *cough cough*), I’ve come to accept them as a flaw that all great directors have. So, when I saw that Bruce Lee scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I shook my head at all the critics who took it so seriously. I thought, “Didn’t they know that this was just Tarantino being Tarantino, getting carried away like he always does? Why give him so much credit? This guy had a wacky scene where a woman killed Hitler and the entire Third Reich, for Chrissakes! This is just another silly moment.”
Fast forward a year or two later, and my perspective completely changed when Tarantino not only badmouthed Lee in real life but seemed a little too defensive in a, “Lady doth protest too much” kind of way. All of a sudden, a scene I had written off as just another example of directorial self-indulgence began to raise an eyebrow, like when a suspect during a criminal investigation starts getting very defensive about why they happened to be at the bank on the Saturday before it was robbed. One thing led to another, and that’s when it finally dawned on me why people were so upset with this movie. Although Tarantino has been self-indulgent throughout his career, the Bruce Lee scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is one of the few moments when he couldn’t have been more cynical and calculating. If you don’t know how or why, I’m going to explain as best as I can what’s going on in that scene, why people were so angered over it and why they had the right to call him out on it.
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