Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Runner-Ups: Bruce Lee in "Enter the Dragon" (1973)

Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon
Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: Bruce Lee
Film: Enter the Dragon (1973)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Actor category (1973):
-Jack Lemmon (Save the Tiger) *WINNER
-Marlon Brando (Last Tango in Paris)
-Jack Nicholson (The Last Detail)
-Al Pacino (Serpico)
-Robert Redford (The Sting)

This weekend marks the opening of the Olympics in Rio, Brazil. As mentioned previously this week in my Theory Thursday column, I come from a family who loves the event with a passion that ties into our personal lives. My mother carried the torch in 1984 when the Olympics were held in Los Angeles, California: my home county. With that in mind, I felt like it would be festive to pick a Runner-Up that has his/her basis in sports. I wanted an athlete who transitioned to film and left an indelible mark. To be honest, it wasn't easy. There have been plenty of great performers over the years who have made a solid contribution to cinema. Terry Crews and Jason Statham subjectively make every film that they're in better. O.J. Simpson, Bubba Smith, and Alex Karras all have their place in iconic comedies. But, are they really ones that I feel comfortable putting up for Oscar consideration? Not exactly. To be frank, there's not too many runaway success stories in this field.

Of course, it should be seen as a compliment that any athlete can be great at sports and halfway decent at film. Both of these fields aren't mutually exclusive and nobody expects an athlete who trains for hours every day to have a skill to memorize and humanize characters quite like Marlon Brando does. Even those who found a niche like Arnold Schwarzenegger are debatable in quality due to playing an archetype (as good as they can be). I know that I am discrediting those who played sports in high school or college, but I feel like for this piece it makes sense to go with someone who dedicated their life to sports and turned to cinema in a roundabout way. That is why I have chosen one of the greatest athletes of all time who also left an impressive stamp on cinema: Bruce Lee.

It is true that compared to most of the aforementioned athletes, one isn't likely to name a whole lot of Bruce Lee movies. In fact, more people are likely to know about his work in Long Beach, CA than half of his filmography. That isn't to say that it's bad, but he does have a knack for being impressively fit and having one of the most enviable punches in martial arts history. He had philosophy ingrained into his identity as well. It almost seems wrong to even think of Lee as an actor because what he was on screen wasn't specifically acting. It was an excuse for him to show off his ridiculously well placed punches and kicks along with his patented scream. It could come off at times as cheesy, but there's one thing that has to be accepted. He has a very photogenic way of beating people up that very few accomplished athletes can attest to.

While it could be sheer ignorance, the only film that I know that had a lasting legacy was Enter the Dragon. Again, it's not necessarily a film with the greatest of plots or the best direction. What it does have is Lee doing his act very well. He is seen spouting off philosophy with gravitas. He is seen beating up enemies with an excellent precision. There's even the iconic mirror room fight that may have ridiculous-looking scar make-up, but you buy into his ability to overcome any wound. He is a strong man who goes out of his way to fight for justice. The film may be an excuse to watch Lee fight, but can you blame him? He's just so good at what he does that it's a shame that he didn't live much longer after the film was released.

Considering that The Oscars don't yet recognize stunt performers, it makes sense why actors who work specifically in action don't get their due. Even if Lee was one of the greatest athletes to ever appear on film, he never would receive credit for his cinematic legacy. He was so iconic that even The Green Hornet - the show that he starred on as Kato - was called The Kato Show in his home country. He's a man whose legacy doesn't need awards, but that is thus antithetical to what The Runner-Ups is about. It's about paying respect to cinematic talent that has gone unnoticed. Maybe Enter the Dragon isn't a stone cold classic in the way that the American films of 1973 were. Most of the films that were nominated in Best Actor are genuine classics by today's standards. However, you're still left to wonder why certain sides of cinema are being ignored. Even Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon feels like a misnomer solely because no martial arts film has been a Best Picture nominee since. At best, one can make the argument that it was more nominated because of Ang Lee, who was far from new to The Academy Awards by the turn of the century.

Still, one has to play the legacy card. How has Bruce Lee influenced the evolution of cinema to make his role worth mentioning? The answer is simple. One can look at other Asian actors who have managed to break the barrier - most notably with Jackie Chan. While Chan's work is far more expansive and sometimes even more worthy of acclaim than Lee in the acting department, can one rationally see Chan without Lee laying out the path? It doesn't help that Asian actors in general are ignored at The Oscars conversation. However, Lee is one of those that excelled in a way that grabbed viewers and created an image that is still lively to this day. Even if he got slapped with an Honorary Oscar, maybe things would be more tolerable. However, he's a force of nature that is left with nothing.

I know that the Olympics would suggest that this week's The Runner-Ups go with sports films, but it's difficult to think of too many that didn't get some acclaim. If anything, this is about athletes proving their strength - and Bruce Lee more than proved his strength over his career. I don't know that Enter the Dragon is the best example of his talents as a cumulative bunch, but they definitely reflect a condensed success of what he was capable of doing. If nothing else, this is also reflective of different issues within The Academy to not nominate action performances on a regular basis, and more-so in a time of "Oscars So White" with Asian actors. Hopefully things will change, but there's no guarantee. Still, it only seems right that things change for the better in all fields instead of one. It's what Lee would've wanted.

No comments:

Post a Comment