THE DEADLIEST MAN ON THE PLANET (PART ONE)
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF BRUCE LEE
BY ALBERT GOLDMAN
The Oriental relish for violence in its most brutal forms gave the greatest martial arts star of all time the cue he had always been seeking to release the violence pent up in his own soul.
About five in the afternoon of May 10, 1973 as Dr. Don Langford, an American missionary surgeon stationed in Hong Kong was preparing to leave Baptist Hospital for the suburb of Kowloon Tong, when Suddenly, the operator shouted at him to stand by, as the other members of Lee’s adoring entourage were bringing in his body.
The initial picture has that of a stroke victim or a man who has suffered some traumatic injury. Getting on with his job, Langford circles His bloody patient,
examining further. He had no reflexes.
His body was drenched with perspiration from a fever of 105. Dr Langford. a veteran of many years in the Orient. suspected he was seeing a condition not uncommon among young Chinese: a leak, or even a hemorrhage, produced in the brain by a congenital defect in the wall between a vein and an artery.
The only remedy was to open the skull and repair the damage. As the doctor looked about, however, he realized that he not be able to operate, because his staff was starting to panic. This was not the first time that these otherwise competent nurses and orderlies had faltered and even fled.
Every time a famous person was brought in at the point of death, the Chinese, who dread being held responsible in such a case, would seek to escape.
Recognizing this danger; Dr Langford summoned to his aid two other physicians upon whom he could rely: Dr. Cecilia X Mong, an anesthesiologist and Dr Peter Nu, Hong Kong’s leading brain specialist.
On more than one occasion, Dr- Langford had received Lee fresh Off a film location where he had suffered a damaging kick to the groin or a nasty burn or a slashed hand; for no matter where or how Lee was injured, he insisted that he be carried to Dr.Langford.
The doctor, for his part. had come to view these visitations With muted apprehension and even a bit of resent- for the famous star was a very difficult patient-Indeed, after observing Lee carefully for a considerable period of time. Dr. Langford had come to the conclusion that the actor was in the strict medical sense of the word a “hysteric.”
For example, instead Of corning into the office like any other man and explaining what ailed him, Lee would not permit the Dr. Langford to perform his work until he had witnessed a complete enactment of the entire incident that led up to the injury- Instead of just letting him get on with his job.
Even as Langford took these precautions, he saw his patient slipping away. Before any surgical procedure could be attempted, the patient had to be stabilized Ordering the anesthesia machine brought down from the floor above (to act as a respirator), the doctor inserted a breathing tube into Bruce Lee’s throat and an IV into his arm, to counter with glucose the effects of shock. At that moment
Dr Wu appeared and examined the patient and he did not see bleeding inside the skull but rather that the brain had swollen and was pressing dangerously against the cranium. The treatment for this condition was a dehydrating agent called Mannitol (the same substance that is used to cut cocaine).
Mannitol, which is actually synthetic urea, produces a strong flow of urine. With the patient unconscious and unable to urinate, there is the danger that his bladder will rupture- so Langford inserted a catheter into Lee’s penis. It was during this painful procedure that the moribund actor gave his first sign Of life. Still unconscious, Bruce Lee reached down and seized the doctor’s hand.
NO sooner did Lee exhibit one sign of life than he displayed others. He began to thrash about on the operating table. In these uncontrolled movements, Dr- Lang ford recognized a fresh threat. He recalled the instance, not long since, when a Japanese stuntman had been brought in suffering from a concussion.
When Langford shone his flashlight into the eyes, the powerful Japanese had come Off the table like an enraged animal and attacked the doctor with both hands and feet- The muscular missionary had to fight for his life. Eventually, he subdued the patient. But Langford knew he wouldn’t stand a chance with a demented Bruce Lee- immediately he began to tie down the twitching fighter’s arms and legs with adhesive tape.
What was driving Bruce Lee? What was he striving to attain? To answer these difficult questions, you have to retrace the growth of his personality from his earliest years.
One of the most striking features Of his character was its swiftness in declaring itself Indeed, contemplating Bruce Lee’s brief but ardent life is like watching a man being shot from a camon The gun powder that drove this human cannonball was probably the non farniliar (but then unrecognized) syndrome of the hyperkinetic or overactive child, a conditon that can assert itself as early as the age of six months.
Describing her husband’s childhood in Hong Kong, Linda Lee writes: “He was simply bouncing energy—runnng, talking, jumping up and down, playing tricks.” Lee’s older brother.
Peter, a Scienentist today at Hong Kong’s Royal Observatory, confirms this description, adding the amusing detail that the families nick— name for little Bruce nas Never Sit Down. This prodigious energy, which, Lee said in later years, he could feel ‘ ‘bubbling and roaring up inside him, and not a simple blessing.
From the start, it created serious problems for the boy and presented him a grave challenge: either he could learn to control his energy or it would control him—and drive him crazy
Like most hyperactive children, the young Bruce Lee found it impossible to concentrate on his studies Even though he was highly intellignent and loved books, he experienced very serious difficulties all through school By the age of eighteen, when he d rapped out, he had reached only the equivalent of the tenth grade.
On the other hand, Lee was able to focus his energy perfectly when he has set a task in that other school, which taught him his earliest and best remembered lessons, show business.
Contrary to what is popularly believed, Bruce Lee nas not a martial artist who somehow developed a knack for acting. He was born into show business and became an actor at an age most children are just entering school The son of a comedian with the Cantonese Opera (kind of Chinese vaudeville), Lee had the typical upbringing of a showbiz brat.
One of the earliest photos of him in the family album shows the infant Bruce with his face painted like a clown. At the age of three months, he made his film debut, carried on camera in his swaddling clothes.
By the age of six, he was playing starring roles. By eighteen, he had appeared in no less than twenty motion pictures and become, as The Little Dragon, the most success child and juvenile actor on the Mandarin circuit.
Meantime, Lee sucked up the atmosphere of the theater and the movie studio like his mother’s milk. For years he was always going backstage at the Cantonese Opera, going out on tours with his father, spending his vacations in the exhilarating company of actors and actresses, One of Bruce Lee’s former teachers recounted to me how he had once asked the boy if he could arrange a tour of a film studio for an out of town visitor.
The teacher was astonished at the aplomb with which young Lee complied with his request, arranging for a car and driver, conducting the visitors about the lot like a
professional guide, and demonstrating at every turn that this was a world in which he was totally at home. In fact, when you view Lee’s early films, the one thing that stands out above everything else is his absolute ease before the camera, which, no matter how intimately it ogles him, never once elicits from him a trace of selfconsciousness. If ever a man to the medium born, that man was Bruce Lee.
Another obvious effect of a showbiz rearing on Bruce Lee was the character it stamped on him as a showoff, a compulsive entertainer, a man who instinctively seizes the center of the stage and goes into his act People in
later years were astonished at the way Lee behaved at parties, in restaurants, or when they met him for the first time. Instead of relating as one person to another, Bruce Lee saw each new acquaintance as an audience that he must wow. Instantly, he would go into one of his favorite shticks.
He might thrust his heavily callused hand at your eyes nith blinding speed— only to close the lids with the gentleness of a caress. Or he might fire three fast kicks past your nose, proving that he had the same micrometer control over his feet as he had of his hands. Or he do his coin trick.
Putting a dime on your palm, he’d say, ‘Let’s see how fast you are Then you were supposed to clench your land before he could grab the coin. Once, twice, he would let you win. The third time, when you opened your hand, you discovered that not only had he grabbed the dime—he had substituted for it a penny!
At the very least, you would get the Bruce Lee handshake, which did not consist of the customary clasp but of a pressing invitation to punch the strong man in the belly. When you delivered the blow, soft or hard—it made no difference to a steel jacketed bullet like Bruce Lee—he would smile happily and exclaim, ‘ ‘Now, there’s a body!”
These tales of a Bruce Lee who was childishly exhibitionist and UN-conscientiously boastfully suggest how close was the man to the boy in this boyish looking performer.
They also underscore a trait that informs his films: his boyish charm No men here to find this facet of Bruce Lee highly appealing; indeed, it was a sophisticated woman in Hollywood who pointed out to me that Bruce Lee was the first martial arts actor to employ charm in his characterization, the traditional demeanor of the Oriental warrior being grim and forbidding, devoid of appeal for most women.
At puberty, the once playful Bruce Lee began to exhibit a zen character that dismayed his family and disgusted his teachers. This middle class boy, who had always said that it was his ambition to become a doctor, committed himself to a life of fighting in the streets and on the tenement rooftops.
“I was a punk,” he told Black Belt in 1966, “and went looking for fights. He used chains and pens with knives hidden inside. Then, one day, I wondered what would happen if I didn’t have my gang behind me when I got into a fight.
I began to study kungfu.” Nobody has ever offered any explanation for this revolution in character; yet, it is Bruce Lee’s ‘ ‘deviant” phase that laid the foundation for everything he achieved in his years Of fame The punk was the father Of the warrior. The determined little kid with the toilet chain wrapped around his waist was the progenitor Of the noble kungfu hero
One reason for Bruce Lee’s abandonment of the school for the streets was the rage that built up in him at this time—and remained ever after, underlying his often cheery personality like the lava inside an inactive volcano.
Finally, there is the element of imagination or fantasy that always played a big part in Bruce Lee’s life. Starting at the age Of six, Lee had been cast in the roles of orphan, runaways, outsiders, juvenile delinquent. It’s entirely possible that these early experiences in playing movie roles may have led him to play a similar part in the streets.
In fact, you could go further and argue that his juvenile acting experience. decisively affected his subsequent conception of the kung—fu movie. Consider for a moment the archetypal confrontation scene in a mature Bruce Lee film
The hero, always the outsider, has stepped into a dangerous scene and is surrounded by a mob Of menacing hoodlums, For a moment, he seems doomed— outnumbered, his escape cut off, Without hope of rescue.
Then, in a flash, he is transfigured with the guise of the modest young man dropping off him like a disguising cloak and steps out the kung—fu killer, the deadliest man on the planet.
Leaping and kicking, spinning and punching in a deadly ballet of animal grace and ferocity, Lee massacres his enemies, dispatching them with such a variety of blows and such ingenious yet spontaneous combinations of movements that the horror and glee of the spectacle whips the audience into a frenzy Of mild exultation. Now, when do you sup pose that Bruce Lee played a scene like this for the first time”? The answer is when he was eight years Old
In Kid Cheung, you see the lad brought reluctantly to school and given a good sound slap to insure his remaining there Soon, he comes into conflict with the other boys.
They surround him like a pack of dogs. At this critical moment, the boy actor does exactly what the man would do more than twenty years later in Enter the Dragon: he picks up a broom handle and lays about him with such good effect that he scatters his attackers and sends therm flying
As Lee’s film career unfolded in the fifties t he was called upon to play roles that were increasingly modeled on the ‘ ‘troubled youth” pictures popular at the time in the United States, films like Blackboard Jungle.
The Orphan, Lee plays a full-blown street punk. You see him snatching purses, hanging out with his gang bosses (who runs a school for purse snatchers), and even dancing the cha-cha (Lee was local cha-cha champ) in a style that would have suited the Dead End Kids.
Inevitably, the big scene shapes up as a mass attack by a whole school of boys on the outsider. Lee, cornered like a rat, whips out a wicked looking switchblade, breaks into the hysterical giggle that was the DJ’s battle cry, and cuts his way through his horrified attackers.
So often did Bruce Lee play some variation on the theme of the juvenile delinquent that one is compelled at last to ask: did Bruce Lee make movies or did movies make Bruce Lee?
Whatever the mode, the medium, by which Lee moved from being a screen fighter to being a street fighter, he accomplished the transformation with characteristic zeal and thoroughness.
He enrolled himself in a kungfu school; attended classes as faithfully there as he cut them at his academc school; and eventually, standing at the head of his own gang, be came the terror first of his school, then of the neighboring schools, and finally of the toughest slum districts in the city.
His schoolmasters recall that he loved nothing better than beating up the boys at the nearby English school, one of his best remembered traits being his resentment of the “white devils.”
Here again you find another prophecy of his later films, which stand James Bond on his head. For just as the Bond films are full of subliminal racism, Bond always defeating the blacks, Jews, and Orientals who are the enemies of the Empire, so Bruce Lee is always knocking the hell out of the Japanese, Americans, Australians, and blacks who are the enemies of the Celestial Empire. In fact, in Hong Kong, a favorite phrase for Lee’s film persona is “Protector of the Chinese People.”)
Eventually the young Bruce Lee’s passion for fighting got so out of hand that he came into collision nith both forces of authority in the street: the Mob and the police. Lee’s most dramatic encounter nith the Chinese Mob (actually a secret society called the Triads) was recounted to me by Brother Henry Pang, today the headmaster of La Salle College, Bruce Lee’s first school.
One aftemoon, Brother Henry and his colleagues in this Christian Brothers school were seated at the dining table in the White House, a rather sacrosanct chapter house that was strictly out of bounds for students.
Suddenly, into their midst bursts the young Bruce Lee, running as if possessed. Three times he tears around the table, until on the last lap he spies a phone booth and dives inside it. The headmaster orders Brother Henry to investigate this outrageous disturbance.
When the roundfaced, bespectacled brother gets the boy talking, he learns that Lee is literally running for his life. In the course of his fighting career, he has beaten up a boy whose father is a big shot in the Triads. Now they are standing outside in the street a whole mob of toughs who are intent on killing Bruce Lee.
If this had been an oldfashioned Hollynood movie, Brother Henry, played by Pat O’Brien, nould have admonished the frightened boy and then put his arm around him reassuringly, This being Hong Kong rather than Hollynood, the consequences were rather different. Brother Henry said, “You got yourself into this mess, Lee—non get yourself cut! Whereupon the lad was not only pushed out into the street but expelled from the school.
Subsequently, Lee got into another fight that had even more serious consequences.
This time the battle was between Lee and the leader of a rival gang, The two young men met on the roof of an apartment house in Kowloon City, the toughest slum in Hong Kong. They agreed that the winner of the match would toss the loser off the roof.
As Lee nas removing his jacket, his opponent jumped him with a kick to the head. Lee went wild with rage and wound up breaking both his rival’s arms as well as his thigh bone. The injured boy’s parents took the matter to the police.
The police nere well acquainted with Bruce Lee and eager, in those years of soaring juvenile crime rates, to make an example of him. Lee’s mother, Grace, always struggling to protect her favorite child, implored the authorities to be merciful Eventually, a bargain nas struck.
The police told Mrs. Lee that they would release her son, but if he ever got into trouble again, he would go to jail. At that point, the mother gave the boy a hundred dollars and put him on a steamer to America.
The epithet always used to characterize the young Bruce Lee in Hong Kong is not ‘punk” or “juvenile delinquent”, it is “bully.” Early and late (but not in his Middle years), Bruce Lee nas a man who ruled by intimidation and who drove over anyone who nould not stand up to him.
If you believe that the child is father to the man, a formula that seems especially apt for a boyman like Lee, it follows that the key to his personality. particularly the explanation for what was driving him, lies in how you interpret that familiar figure of the streets, the bully.
Of all the people with whom I talked about Bruce Lee, none exhibited so much insight into this problem—and into Lee’ s character general—as did Bob Wall, a former karate champion and movie actor, who appeared in three of Bruce Lee’s films.
Wall met Lee in 1963, when the future superstar was just a skimy, funny youngster with a consumng interest in the martial arts. Wall and his toumament teammate, Chuck Norris, took an interest in the kungfu enthusiast and aided him in many ways, ranging from advice on diet (Lee ate nothing but junk food and had a face covered nith pimples) to offering him tips on fighting techniques to loaning him money when he got into jams.
Eventually, Wall became one of Lee’s very fen intimates; for Lee was a gregarious loner, surrounded by relatives, disciples, pupils, and colleagues but with virtually no confidants. Out of this long friendship and out of the understanding of his own juvenile behavior, which closely paralleled that of Lee, Bob Wall has come to some interesting conclusions about the type of the bully.
Basically, he regards the bully as the coward tumed inside out: the man who is so fearful of being slighted, scorned, or defeated that he sets out deliberately to create and project an image of invulnerabilitys of muscle and menace, that will terrify the world and enable him to rule, even without fighting.
The key to Bruce Lee’s personality as Nall sees it, was a profound and pervasive insecurity that comrenced when he was a scared little kid getting beaten up by the bigger, tougher kids in school, but which persisted even when Lee had become the most feared boy in the school, or, as Lee’s brother. Robert, put it: the “king gorilla.”
What’s more, even in his years of great success and worldwide fame, everything Bruce Lee did betrayed this same gnawing insecurity, the incapacity to recognize that because he was being universally acclaimed, he no longer had to prove him self, that because he had already reached the goal, he didn’t have to drive so hard.
Ultimately, therefore, what you confront in Bruce Lee is the paradox of a success that raises only the frightening prospect of failure because every fresh success must be bigger than the last success and the only way to obtain this bigger success is to risk an even bigger and more humliating failure.
Nor is this a vien held only by Bob Wall, though he voices it most clearly: it is echoed and affirmed by all the brightest people who knen Bruce Lee, who agree that Bruce Lee could never relax and let down his guard because he saw every step in his career as a life and death challenge.
Once Bruce Lee established himself in America, his personality undernent an other revolution, or, more precisely, a counterrevolution. The school dropout became the model scholar. Lee obtained a high school diploma and enrolled in college to study philosophy.
The street punk became an exemplary husband and father. Lee married nineteen yearold Linda Emery, a plain, bespectacled girl, who had lost her father when she was five and developed, apparently, such a yearing for a strong, dominnating male presence to whom she could relate in a submissive and obedient mamer, that Bruce Lee used to boast that she was ‘ ‘better than an Oriental wife.”
Most important, the boy who had studied kungfu to find ways of beating up other boys soon became the man whose quest was for a new and vastly superior martial art that nould combine the ruthless realism of the street fighter with a lofty and idealistic conception of selfhood inspired by Taoi Zen, and other Oriental doctrines.
Even as Lee worked doggedly to develop his uncompromsing physique into the superbly muscled, catlike body that later flashed across the movie screen, even as he analyzed wth the aid of a large library and extensive, sometimes eloquent, notes of his onw composition, all the possibilities of hand to hand combat, studying boxing and fencing as well as all the Oriental arts, he dreamed of some day returning to the screen as the hero of a new sort of action film.
Moving to Los Angeles to play the part of Kato in “The Green Homet” on TV, Lee built up an impressive underground reputation both in the martial arts community and in the film colony. His pupils came to include Steve McQueen, James Cobum, and Kareem AbdulJabbar.
His friends numbered powerful film executives like Ted Ashley, president of Namer Brothers, Tom Tamenbaum, executive vicepresident of Paramount (TV), and Sy Neintraub, producer of the Tarzan films and an officer of National General.
All of these people wanted Bruce Lee to succeed, but the system was impossible to beat. As ABC said when it tumed Lee down for the lead in its new series “Kung Fu”: “You can’t make a star out of a five foot six Chinese actor. ‘
Behind this obvious obstacle, there lay another, more subtle, problem. Like every young actor on the make in Hollynood, Bruce Lee had developed an image that was designed to intrigue.
Instead of being like a cocky, feisty little street cat, who loved to tell dirty jokes, ball chicks, and sneer at dumb punks—an Oriental Jimmy Cagney—Bruce Lee offered the writers and the studio heads an image that was very spirituel and mysterious.
He spoke in parables and paradoxes, saying that water was the strongest of all things and that when he hit, it wasn’t he who hit but it who hit. He affected a profound humility, boasted that he had transcended hate and even anger, never uttered a vulgar nord, and refused not only tea and coffee but even a cupcake if he feared it might contain an artificial ingredient.
In the Hollynood of the late sixties, full of Zen raps and macrobiotic diets, this sort of act was highly effective. After all, Bruce Lee had grown up in show business; he knew how to put people away—especially show people, The only problem was that when somebody finally sought to translate this disembodied Bruce Lee to the screen, the results were pretty feeble.
Stirling Silliphant, an Academy Awnard winning screennriter, who was one of Bruce Lee’s most devoted pupils, fashioned for his master what was supposed to be the perfect vehicle for his image— the initial episode of a TV series entitled “Longstreet.” In this slick, carefully crafted production, Lee appears not as a fighter but as a martial arts guru, a sensitive, softspoken young man, who works in an antique shop and talks in fortune cookie proverbs.
He takes on the impossible assignment of teaching a blind detective how to beat up a bullying dockworker In the course of the lessons, you soak up the image of the master.
Silliphant sought to make these training sessions as authentic as possible using the same sort of background (Lee employed, the same air shield for punching, even the master’s favorite exhortations).
What comes off the screens however, is not a thrilling glimpse of Bruce Lee working demonically in his Chinatonn kwoon filled with grimy punching bags and bizarre looking dummies, but just the opposite: a prancing faggot dance instructor lisping, “Sensitivity! Sensitivity! . Relationship! . Relationship!” as he whips a lousy act together for opening night at Las Vegas. Thank God this traves ty of Bruce Lee got no further than the first episode, Though Lee appeared in three more episodes, he nas kept in the background posing, like a human dummy.
What happened next is one of the great rallies of shonbiz history. Lee, dispirited and dejected (especially after the starring role in ‘ ‘Kung Fu” has been given to David Carradine), decided Impulsively to take an offer to make a Mandarin movie for a mere Hong Kong studio called Golden Harvest for $7,500. (The familar story of Bruce Lee’s rise to fame commencing with an unexpected phone call from Hong Kong is highly misleading).
The truth is that Lee had first approached Run Run Shan, the head of Hong Kong’s biggest studio, and received an offer of a fiveyear contract at $500 a month. Lee was insulted by the offer and denounced it bitterly to one of his Hong Kong cronies, named Little Unicom.
It was this man who alerted Raymond Chon, head of Golden Harvest, to Lee’s availability.) The picture, shot in a wretched little village near Bangkok for a mere $80,000, tumed out to be the purest and most unselfconscious of all Lee’s famous movies. Exhibited in the East as The Big Boss (in the West as Fists of Fury), it broke records throughott the Orient and InstantIy launched Lee on the career he had been seeking vainly for years in Hollynood.
Being restored to his roots brought to life again the artist in Bruce Lee. The bloodlust of the Chinese film public compelled him to stop philosophizing and start fighting. In no time, he conceived and executed an amazing zen style of combat choreography that established him in just two short years as—along with Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire—one of the three greatest movers in the history of movies.
At the same time that the sanguinary character of Chinese film sparked Lee’s genius for combat, the melodramatic implausibility of these preposterous pictures released Bruce Lee’s fantasy.
After all, his beloved kingfu didn’t belong in the moderm world, where every punk nalks around with a piece in his pocket. Kungfu has an art that flourished in the nevernever land of Oriental cinema, with its archaic conventions, its masklike characters, its easy transition from a hignly stylized sense of reality to sheer fairy tale.
Overnight Lee dropped his lifelong insistence on the simple, direct style of the street fighter and embraced instead an elaborate and theatrical style filled with increasingly baroque and bizarre flourishes.
The katas, or ritualized training routines, that Lee had ridiculed in the past, he employed now to build suspense before a big fight, as in the dazzling exchange of nunchaku flourishes betneen himself and Damy Inosanto in Game of Death.
The flying kicks that he said he would never use in actual combat because they made a man too vulnerable to counterblows, he used brilliantly to produce the awesome, (flying finale of Fists of Fury, The karate war cry, Bruce never once used in America (and made fun of others for using), he transformed into a thrilling succession of jungle noises, the sounds of wild cats and birds screeching over the big beat of meat carcasses being pounded with speedbag gloves or gunponder explosions recorded from near and far. (Nothing about the Bruce Lee movies is more original or more consistently exciting to the imagination than this highly original symphony of martial sound. In fact, it is probably the most rousing nusic” since the introduction of acid rock.)
Finally, Lee boned to the tradition of using weapons instead of bare hands, employing eventually in his own hands or those of his adversaries virtually every weapon in the Oriental armory: single and double stave, two handed swords, mace, dart, nunchaku, throwing knifes, etc.
The most important result of getting back into Mandarin movies was that it inspired Lee to make these simple action films into extravagant and compelling psychodramas. No actor in history has portrayed rage with the conviction and power of Bruce Lee.
His great fight sequences are not simply deadly ballets. They are excruciating agons, in which the protagonist expresses with face and body every facet of fury. Like a living Laocoon, Bruce Lee evinces in battle with demonlike foes a series of grimaces and postures that are the authentic passional equivalents of the traditional Oriental theater masks and attitudes. In fact, the whole secret of Lee’s histrionic genius is his capacity to find and bring to the surface through sheer talent the precise lineaments of the most violent and visceral of all emotions.
Violence is the soul of the Oriental cinema, and it was the Oriental relish for violence in its most brutal forms that gave Bruce Lee the cue he had always been seeking to release the violence that has always pent up In his own soul.
Had Lee remained in Hollynood, playing the spooky martial arts guru, he would never have been permitted to go to the lengths that characterize his Mandarin movies.
The first thing that strikes you about these films as a Nestemer is won they embrace their sanguinary themes without a trace of guilt or inhibition. This was the license that Lee craved, and that he nould never have been granted in a country that every day grows more ambivalent and contorted in its efforts to both embrace and reject the violence that seethes in its soul
By the time he made his second film, Bruce Lee was grimacing like a lunatic and screaming like a jungle beast. So powerful did his presence become on the screen as the result of his laserlike focus of primtive emotion, so fell and ruthless became his attacks, so ecstatic his exultation in combat, that for the first time in the long, violence crammed history of the cinema, audiences nere brought face to face with the primary process, the anhilative instinct per se.
If comng home had an inspiring effect on Bruce Lee the artist, it had a profoundly destructive effect on Bruce Lee the man In no time he began to revert to his old self and his old ways.
The first people who felt the change nere Lee’s former friends in Hollynood, who had bought the image of a Bruce Lee who was just too good to make it in Tinseltown.
They got to know the real Bruce Lee, though they assumed that all the distressing changes they observed were just products of stardom. One woman was appalled at Lee’s new look shades, stagey continental clothes, stacked heels PatekPhillipe pants, walking stick—which she likened to a “cross betneen an Oriental rock star and a pimp.” Another old friend was dismayed when he called up Lee with a film offer and was told, “I don’t think you can afford me now.”
Stirling Silliphant had labored for years to get the studios Interestred in a Bruce Lee vehicle entitled The Silent Flute (released in 1978 as Circle of Iron, with David Carradine) that would also star James Cobum. When Silliphant an nounced proudly that he had finally gotten the deal together, Lee remarked causticalIy, “Why should I carry Coburn?” It nas a rude anakening for the Hollywood people They had thought that “Brucey” was ‘different.
The truth is that all the years Lee had lived in California, he had been a soul on ice. Like many aliens, especially those from the Orient, he had adopted a mask and suppressed or sublimated many of his most basic character traits
Now that he was back home and a star, he let it all hang out. To that extent, he was a gainer. But the same forces that had driven Bruce Lee into juvenile delinquency were still alive and active in Hong Kong. Now they began again to take their deadly toll
No unambiguous clues exist to the mystery of Bruce Lee’s chronic hostility in his hometonn. The most likely explanation arises from Chinese ideas about class and caste. Lee’s family were actors- not just his father but his cousins and actors nere scorned in Chinese society, being regarded not only as low in caste but as immoral beings, the expression, ‘*He runs with actors and actresses,”‘ commoting total profligacy.
Bruce Lee, a sensitive and acute lad, attending the best Chinese school in Hong Kong, may have detected this attitude at an early age in his fellon pupils and been inspired to take revenge.
When years later he returned to Hong Kong not as the professional man, the doctor or lanyer his father had wanted him to be, but as an actor—albeit one who soon became a popular idol he must have experienced again the old rage at being regarded as a social inferior; only now the anger was greatly heightened by his enormous sense of his own north. Thus the stage was set for a whole series of antagonistic encounters betneen Lee and the locals.
As Lee’s rage mounted, so did its expressions multiply from outbursts of uncontrolled violence to embarrassed apologies for these outbursts, then to projection onto others of the rage Lee felt in himself, and finally to retreat from the world into a world of his own contriving. It is glib, it is wrong, to attribute all this personality distortion to mere success.
No man is really changed by success. What happens is that success works on the successful man’s personality like a truth drug, bringing him out of the closet and revealing to an often astounded world what nas always inside his head.
Bruce Lee in Hong Kong was always, boy or man, nobody or star, a desperately embattled human being. It is this serse of being desperately embattled that he projects so powerfully from the screen. In the movies Lee wins his private war -though the endings of his pictures are curiously vague, as if he didn’t knon what to do after a victory. In life, Lee was a loser.
Linda Lee reports that during her husband’s final months he summed up his predicament in two absolutely candid but totally contradictory statements. One day he exclaimed: ‘ ‘There’s no limit, no end in sight, to how far I can ascend!” Another day, in a different mood, he confessed: “I don’t know how long I can keep this up.” A few weeks later, he was dead.
To be continued…
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