A new Bruce Lee documentary that premiered at Sundance this weekend could affect the Oscars race for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor.
Be Water, directed by Bao Nguyen for ESPN films, presents a vision of the late martial arts star that’s far different than the stereotype presented in Quentin Tarantino blockbuster Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
With much of Hollywood at the Utah film fest, the documentary stands a solid chance of underscoring in the minds of Academy voters the insensitivity of Tarantino’s caricature of Lee. In the film, cool-as-a-cucumber stuntman Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, beats the hell out of a braggadocious Lee, a portrayal the Lee family says misrepresented the kung fu legend, who passed away in 1973.
Final Oscar voting opens January 30 and closes February 4; Pitt is nominated for Best Supporting Actor (for which he already took home a Golden Globe award) and OUATIH for Best Picture.
Strides have been made to mitigate the racism and sexism that’s long been prevalent in the movie business, but industry insiders—particularly the Sundance audience—are sensitive to the problems that persist.
Through interviews with Lee’s surviving family and friends, Nguyen’s film drives home how Hollywood’s intolerance toward Asian Americans cost Lee dearly. For instance, Lee wanted the lead role in the TV series Kung Fu but was told he wasn’t suitable due to his Hong Kong accent. The part went to a white guy.
In a pre-screening interview I had with Nguyen and producer Julia Nottingham, the director commented on the unlikelihood that a 50-year-old like Pitt would have been able to pummel Lee in a scuffle.
“If Brad wins an acting Oscar, we’ll know why,” Nguyen joked.
Nottingham said production of Be Water started long before the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. “That was another filmmaker’s vision,” she says. “He can have his, and take what license he sees fit as an artist. Our film stands on its own.”
Good intentions notwithstanding, you could say the hagiographic Be Water has perspective problems of its own. Nguyen’s film punts on the question of what killed Lee when he was only 32 years old—and it doesn’t mention that Lee died at his mistress’ apartment.
Perhaps Nguyen felt too grateful to the Lee family, including his widow, for participating in the documentary and allowing footage from his films to be included. Or perhaps the film is meant to be a portrait of Lee’s life, not of his death—but that doesn’t make his demise beside the point.
Not mentioned is the fact that Lee is reported to have had his armpit sweat glands removed shortly before his death because he thought sweat was ugly on film. Also not mentioned here, but explained in convincing detail in Matthew Polly’s thorough 2018 biography of Lee, the star may have died of heat stroke, very likely exacerbated by his lack of glands and Lee’s ferocious work rate in the Hong Kong heat.
But the story of the mistress and Lee eating hash on the day of his death might undercut the spirituality and purity of intention that Nguyen lovingly portrays with only the barest sound bite of Lee admitting he does have some (unnamed) imperfections.
The truth is that details like that might have heightened the sense of pressure Lee was under, showing he was driven to try to be Superman to overcome the discrimination he faced and the pressures of living in a prison of celebrity.
In fact, looking through Polly’s book—which happens to be available at a book store on Park City’s Main Street—I came away thinking the restless, egoist caricature in Tarantino’s film might be truer to life than the version presented in the documentary.