Bruce Lee: Examining the New Biography of a Movie Icon
Here's what we learned from Matthew Polly's biography of the iconic martial arts hero, Bruce Lee: A Life.
At the very end of this mammoth biography, Matthew Polly writes about the first commemorative statue of Bruce Lee ever erected. It was in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and it was chosen by the people as a symbol of solidarity, justice, and racial harmony – and yes, they picked Bruce Lee rather than the Pope or Ghandi, both of whom had also been shortlisted. A spokesperson explained “We will always be Muslims, Serbs, or Croats, but one thing we all have in common is Bruce Lee.”
Of the many stories in the book, it’s maybe this one that helps show how profound an impact Bruce had on popular culture.
It also hints at another theme integral to Polly’s biography: that Bruce so rarely got the recognition he deserved. He achieved so much. He was the first Asian-American actor to have a lead role in a major western studio picture; he brought martial arts into the western mainstream and brought western fashion to the east; he broke down the barriers between eastern and western filmmakers; he arguably spearheaded the 1970s surge in Chinese nationalism that led to the socio-economic ascent of Hong Kong… plus he was just, like, the coolest guy ever, right? Yet it took until 2005 – 32 years after his death – before even a single statue was erected in his honor.
(A second statue was unveiled in Hong Kong the day after the one in Mostar).
You could look at Bruce Lee: A Life and think “what? Another Bruce Lee book? In 2018? Why do we need that?” but the reality is that, despite his super-stardom, there are relatively few Bruce biographies and even fewer that are reliable. His life is so shrouded in myth and legend that finding anything that isn’t caught up in that is hard. In Hong Kong, the tragedy of his death sparked a whole genre of low-budget, far-fetched biopics (and you can read much more about Bruceploitation films here) and, ultimately, fact blurred into fiction over time. The rumors about Bruce overshadowed the reality. Rob Cohen’s hit biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, brought his work to a new generation, but continued the spread of well-intentioned misinformation into the 1990s and beyond.
Throughout Polly’s book, he gives us several descriptions of how Bruce Lee would demonstrate his skills to doubters. One of his favorite tricks was to have them hold up a shield for him to kick. He’d then kick it so hard, it would send them flying across the room. This is basically what Bruce Lee: A Life does to all previous biographies. It is a stunning piece of work that’s genuinely essential for fans at any level.
While it may not be a fully authorized biography (although both Linda and Shannon Lee have been interviewed for it), it is unquestionably an authoritative one. Polly spent the best part of a decade researching it and talked to almost every living person who played a part in Bruce Lee’s life. The benefit of such a comprehensive group of interviewees is not just that it keeps the anecdotes colorful and diverse (want to read about Chuck Norris splitting his pants open, IK+ style? It’s all here!) but that it substantiates what’s being said. There are several occasions where stories will vary and Polly makes a point of letting each voice speak in turn, often leading naturally to its own objective, but never leading, conclusion.
Considering how much contention there’s been about some of this stuff in the past, Polly’s lucid approach is a joy to read.
He even offers a new theory about what actually killed Bruce Lee (still one of the most hotly debated mysteries) and – while Polly’s not arrogant enough to suggest it’s a definitive one – it’s certainly a convincing one. All of these controversial elements are presented without sensationalism, which further lends gravitas to the book.
Like many fans, Polly first came to Bruce Lee via an illicit VHS tape of Enter The Dragon and quickly became obsessed. In fact, he took this newfound love of martial arts to the point where he went to China to train at the Shaolin Temple for two years (an experience he documented in his first book American Shaolin). In his afterword here, Polly writes about the time he spent researching Bruce Lee with a sense of awe. He had dinners bought for him by Betty Ting Pei, he trained with Dan Inosanto, he was charmed by Raymond Chow and Fred Weintraub, and basically went on the ultimate Bruce Lee adventure which – for a fan – must’ve been an astonishing experience. Although he’s an objective writer, this enthusiasm comes through on every page, which makes the book an exciting, breezy read, despite the formidable length.
The story itself reads like fiction. From Bruce’s early life in Hong Kong, his journey to the US in the 1950s and his time living in a closet at the back of a Chinatown restaurant, to his integration into swinging 60s Hollywood, eventual mega-stardom and sudden death, it feels almost too carefully structured to be true. Even as someone who had a fair pre-existing knowledge of Lee’s life, this book not only told me a lot I didn’t know but – most importantly – added so much detail to what I did. The vivid way Polly writes about each phase of Bruce’s life gives this all a strong sense of place. The authenticity is provided by all the interviewees who were there at the time.
As for Bruce himself, he’s given a far fuller personality here than ever before. He’s irascible, flawed, not always likeable, yet irresistible and wise. When shooting the hall of mirrors scene in Enter The Dragon – one of the greatest in film history – Bruce worked himself so hard, he nearly collapsed, causing co-star Shih Kien to yell, “Take it easy, son, this is only a movie!” What Polly’s book gets across is exactly why, to Bruce, it was so much more than that. Newcomers to his work will find great insight here as to why it’s so essential, while old fans will find a host of interesting angles from which to revisit.
When I first saw Bruce Lee: A Life, a whopping great hardback thing, I doubted whether it could justify its weight. Having now read it, this is a book that will take pride of place on my shelf, as it should on any martial art fan’s. It’s a beautiful, thorough and passionate piece of work and I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job. As someone who’s been a Bruce Lee nut since I first played the Bruce Lee Commodore 64 game back in the 80s, this brought back that excitement all over again. It’s a rare biography that can be as thrilling as it is informative but Matthew Polly’s created a piece of work here that’s equal to his subject – simply the best.
Bruce Lee: A Life is available now from Simon And Schuster. Buy it here.