By Chris Davis | 20 June 2018
The legend of Bruce Lee tells us that the original lion of crossover martial arts cinema was also a lion of the martial arts life. After all, this is the man who wrote Tao of Jeet Kune Do after breaking his own back working too hard on his craft. Although, that is not exactly true. Lee actually broke his back by not doing his usual morning stretches before jumping into his monster workout. Lesson there? Always stretch!
This book takes a new view of Bruce Lee, as an imperfect man, not as a perfect icon. Not having read Mathew Polly’s book all the way through, the view it posits is still surprising and unsettling.
Lee's newest biographer Matthew Polly brings to life an entirely human portrait of Lee, painting him as much less godly, and indeed, as a womanizer and control freak.
The hook for the general public is the graphic testimony of Sharon Farrell, an actress Lee supposedly cheated on his wife with. (As an aside, if her testimony can be trusted, Farrell eventually broke off the affair with Lee to begin another affair with Lee's student, actor Steve McQueen.)
Obviously, Lee could have had great success with women. He was handsome, interesting, exciting, one of the biggest movie stars on the
planet, and consistent training had chiseled his physique to near superhuman perfection. Lee was an excellent dancer, charming, eloquent, and had been appearing and acting in film parts since he was three months old.
It may come as a surprise that these traits we love about Lee may have caused his death, not from any honorable exploit, but in an affair with actress Betty Ting Pei.
To the martial artist, there is something much more important allegedly revealed in Polly's exposé. Our community may be able to get past the affairs, partly because Linda Lee herself has been the primary champion of Bruce's estate in the face of speculation and rumor. The most unsettling accusation speaks to the intent of Bruce Lee's extraordinary martial ability.
Bruce Lee Was an Actor, Not a Martial Artist?
A little known fact is that Bruce Lee actually made his acting debut as a baby. He was quite committed to the acting lifestyle very early on. Polly makes this fact out to be extremely important, as if this means Bruce Lee was only an aspiring actor, and not ‘really’ a martial artist…whoa. Run that by me again?!
None of his early roles had anything to do with martial arts. Polly says this fact is important. However, it is easy to look into Hollywood at that time, and see the same thing that Lee saw—there were no good roles for Asians in Hollywood at that time, period. He wisely left the US back to where he would be considered a viable option for leading man in films, a break he could not possibly hope to find in the West at that time.
Polly seems to argue that the young Lee was completely infatuated with the bright lights of Hollywood, going so far as to say that Lee "wanted to be more American" for his entire life. Seeing martial arts as his way to get in, he began to study.
This idea is not easy to prove as correct. It also makes it sound like there is something wrong with Lee wanting to become a professional actor, when he’d been acting since he was a child.
Point of fact: Bruce Lee had also been an intensely motivated martial artist since he was a child, as well, fighting in the gangs and in the dojo since his early years. Polly makes it sound like the two somehow cancel each other out—either be an actor—or a martial artist. If that had been true, chances are the Western world would never had been exposed to the Green Hornet and Kato, and never would have accepted martial arts with open arms like it did.
This is actually not so bad in and of itself. Plenty of young people find a deeper meaning in study originally undertaken for a selfish purpose. However, Polly's description of Lee's personality delves into the downright sinister.
Polly describes Lee as a quite confusing mixture of Sinocentrism and a wish to be Western, with the result being downright entitlement. Polly's Lee is an arrogant, controlling, self-righteous prick who felt he was the best thing walking - while preaching Taoism to the rest of the world.
Be like water. According to Polly, Lee was pure fire - and not the pure kind that heals as it burns.
Polly’s view of Bruce Lee, after all of the puzzle pieces are together, is a picture of a man who took on martial arts as a pure means to an end. Polly claims Lee only took martial arts to achieve fame and success in Hollywood. This is not the man we idolize - the man who blindly sought self improvement for its own sake. This is not Ryu from Street Fighter. This is Johnny Cage from Mortal Kombat; Jean-Claude Van Damme's corny high kicks; CM Punk's 0-2 MMA record.
Truth or Wild Speculation
I had a five animal form/JKD teacher on my college campus who purported to use Reiki to improve martial technique. I don't want to say he was a hack. He was a talented guy. He lived in a studio apartment and made his own movie demos using students as stuntmen. He gave away lessons to girls for free. This was a good guy, right?
Ok, he was a hack.
Using Reiki within a training session meant writing a name on a piece of paper, then touching that name and meditating on it. As you meditated with your arms out, Sensei would come by and attempt to push your arms down. The stronger the name on the paper, the stronger your arms would become.
Of course, one of the students chose Bruce Lee as the name to write on the paper.
The result of the experiment is unimportant. The importance we attach to names and what we expect of them is the point. The publisher of Polly's book surely jumped on the opportunity because of the controversy it would cause, how many sales would be generated as a result of that controversy, andthe discussion of how sacred Lee's name is to us.
What is Perfection?
The basic premise of Polly’s book apparently is that Lee is not ‘really’ a martial arts master if he also wanted to be a famous actor. Let’s look at that assumption. Bruce Lee trained in martial arts for years as a child and youth intense, almost barbaric conditions. He was no hack.
Lee learned and mastered martial arts well enough to be able to take apart techniques and put them together again in new forms—typically considered one mark of a master. Bruce Lee created of his own martial arts style, Jeet Kune Do. Lee was a kung fu and wing chun expert, and opened the world to martial arts. Polly’s book also says Lee was basically not a good person.
No one is perfect, that is one truth all can agree on, and no one gets to where Lee got with a weak ego. However, if Lee’s personal writings mean anything, and if his personal philosophy actually did come from him, then it speaks louder than any dirt that may be thrown upon his words and life.
The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth?
I don't know if I will read Polly's Lee biography in full. I am a grown man, and I honestly don't know if I can take what I might find in there. Bruce Lee - a life of temper tantrums and affairs? A man who studied martial arts to get girls and become rich and famous? Say it ain't so. Who else can I idolize? Of course, the opposite may be true. Polly may be trying to get rich and famous by despoiling the legacy of a great man. I could live with that truth.
For some of you, perhaps those more advanced than I, it may be time to take that bronze lion off the shelf. If you see me, don't tell me what happened. I'll watch this movie when I get good and ready, and not one second before. I’ll still be hoping Lee’s image remains untarnished.