Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon.
Photo: Getty Images
Bruce Lee came from an entertainment family. His father, a famous Cantonese opera singer, and his mother, a seamstress and wardrobe woman, were touring America when Bruce was born in 1940; he faced his first movie camera before he was old enough to crawl. His acting career began in earnest at the age of 6 after his family returned to their native Hong Kong. By the time he was 18, he had made nearly 20 Cantonese films — none of which were kung fu flicks.
Upon returning to the U.S. for college, Lee took a look at the type of roles Asians were offered and abandoned any acting aspirations. “How many times in a [Hollywood] film is a Chinese required?” Lee later explained to Esquire. “And when it is required, it is always the typical houseboy or pigtailed coolie stuff. I said ‘To hell with it.’” Instead he decided to become the Ray Kroc of kung fu, franchising dojos along the West Coast. It wasn’t until a karate tournament in 1964 when he was discovered by a producer who cast him as sidekick Kato in The Green Hornet TV series. It set him on a path to become the world’s first martial-arts megastar — a dream that came to fruition, bittersweetly, with the 1973 release of Enter the Dragon, one month after his death at the age of 32.
To commemorate the 45th anniversary of Lee’s passing and Enter the Dragon’s release, Simon & Schuster has published Bruce Lee: A Life, the first comprehensive biography of the icon’s life and work. As this ranking of his 24 films demonstrates, Lee appeared in a far wider variety of films than his legend gives him credit for, from comedies to melodramas. But the one constant in almost all his performances was his ease in front of the camera. It’s as if he was born into it.
This is the flick Bruce Lee fans love to hate. In 1972 Lee filmed 30 minutes of fight scenes for a movie about a yellow-jumpsuited hero who battles his way up a five-story pagoda to retrieve a secret treasure. Lee died before he completed the project, but five years later, Golden Harvest studios unearthed the footage, cut it down to seven minutes, and stuck it on the end of a creaky plot about a Chinese stuntman who gets shot in the face, gets reconstructive surgery, and takes revenge from beyond the grave. The whole thing is a distasteful mess.
Lee’s father, Hoi-chuen, was cast in a number of movies, and he would often bring his son on set with him. “Bruce climbed the wooden ladders to reach the suspended studio lights,” actress Feng So Po remembers of the hyperactive boy. “He wanted to touch everything from the cameras to the sound equipment.” One of the directors saw his relentless energy and offered him a part in this Cantonese tearjerker about a runaway who becomes a pickpocket and, uh, gets run over by a truck. A forgettable flick that flopped at the box office, this one’s only notable for typecasting young Lee as a wily street urchin with a heart of gold, a kind of Artful Dodger.
Once again, Lee was cast as a lost boy. His father co-starred in the film and the promoters, seeking to play off the family connection, gave Lee a new stage name: Little Hoi-chuen. The newspapers followed suit, calling him “Wonder Kid.” The son would spend the rest of his life determined to outshine his old man. Based on this performance, he had his work cut out for him.
Adolescence proved a tricky transition for Lee’s career. Too old for the scrappy orphan role, he attempted to play against type and broaden his range with mixed results. His character is proper, naïve, dutiful, and rich — and in love with his family’s housemaid. Critics panned the movie, singling out his performance as “rigid,” “artificial,” and “over-eager.” Mercifully, this was his only attempt to play the refined gentleman.
Esther Eng was a pioneering female film director who specialized in patriotic war movies. While filming Golden Gate Girl, she needed a newborn girl for several scenes and asked Lee’s father if she could borrow his son. In one brief appearance, two-month-old Lee is rocked to sleep in a wicker bassinet, wearing a lacy bonnet and girl’s blouse. His mother was flustered to see her delicate child so transfigured for the camera. In another close-up, a warmly wrapped baby Lee cries inconsolably, eyes squeezed shut, mouth agape, arms flapping, chubby cheeks and double chin reverberating as the sound echoes through San Francisco.
In what amounts to a PSA against harsh Confucian parenting, Lee plays a poor kid who, yes, runs away to become a street urchin and petty thief. In real life, Lee and his classmates had formed an actual gang that would roam back alleys looking for fights. That lived experience led to a sharp performance in an otherwise tedious film.
In 1953, Lee joined a socialist collective of filmmakers and actors called Union Films, leading him to appear in a string of socially conscious, message-driven movies. In this particularly earnest melodrama, a poor mother and father give away their infant daughter to a childless middle-class couple, only to regret their decision. (It was all too common an occurrence in postwar Hong Kong; Jackie Chan’s parents considered selling him to wealthy doctor.) In the movie, Lee shows up only briefly as the lazy landlord’s son, constantly slicking back his greased hair with a comb like Elvis.
This family drama was once considered one of Lee’s lost films until the Hong Kong Film Archives eventually located a scratchy print. But it probably would’ve been fine if they hadn’t, as it’s essentially only half a Bruce Lee movie: He plays the role of a thoughtful son before getting replaced halfway through the film by an older actor.
This social-realist satire contrasts the family life of a rich businessman with a poor car mechanic who makes an honest living, finding comfort in his family. In a bit of a twist, Lee finally plays a happy, non-urchin child as the mechanic’s cheerful son. Blink and you’ll miss his grinning face in this largely decorative role.
Lee, as the titular orphan, doesn’t show up until the last 20 minutes — a long slog through thick gruel for what amounts to a wan performance, too passive and diffident to care about.
Fun fact: Lee was once the cha-cha champion of Hong Kong. Also fun: His real-life dance partner, Margaret Leung, co-stars as a spoiled rich girl in this lighthearted rom-com. Want to see Bruce Lee as a fashionable, sweater-vest-wearing toff as he cha-chas in a nightclub? This is the movie for you. The only bit of acting required on his part is when Leung’s love interest angrily confronts him — and instead of engaging, Lee’s character flees in terror. It may be the only known instance of Lee running away from a fight.
This is the third film in a romantic trilogy — beginning with She Says “No” to Marriage (1951) and followed by She Says “No” to Marriage But Now She Says “Yes!” (1952) — about a successful singer who is forced to retire and marry a man she despises. Lee plays her son — a dance tutor. (More Bruce Lee dance trivia: Later, as a college student in America, he taught dance classes to help pay the bills.) Smartly dressed in modern clothing, charming but a little smug, this performance gives the best glimpse into what Lee was actually like as a Westernized teenager in colonial Hong Kong.
A cutup in class, it seemed natural for Lee to try his hand at comedy at some point. He did just that in this age-reversal slapstick farce, playing a doltish teenager who finds himself caught in increasingly absurd romantic situations. Yet the real humor comes from watching the King of Kung Fu stammering and twitching like a fool. Lee’s comedic idol was Jerry Lewis, and he does a credible imitation, down to the white sailor-boy outfit and black horn-rim glasses.
After WWII, millions of refugees from China’s civil war flooded into the British colony of Hong Kong. This classic film weaves together the stories of the many impoverished families all living in one teeming, soon-to-be-demolished tenement building, with Lee playing the sincere son of one of the poorest tenants. In less than five minutes of screen time, he manages to deliver a standout, touching performance in a movie filled with them.
Here Lee gets to play a happy orphan, albeit briefly: His idyllic country life gets disrupted by an escaped criminal who turns out to be his biological father. The scenes where Lee is trapped in a shack with this desperate, violent man are the best of the movie, mostly because it’s fun to watch a 15-year-old Bruce Lee try to play weak.
In yet another message-driven melodrama, a foster child gets adopted by a doctor and his wife, who run an orphanage for blind girls. When Lee’s character grows up, he discovers the cure for blindness. The movie ends with a direct-to-camera plea: “Every child can be just like him. Poor handicapped children are waiting for your love, for education and nurturing.” By this point in his career, Lee had mastered the orphan role, infusing his performance with a heavy dollop of pathos.
Set onboard a steamship, this two-part melodrama unfolds in six episodes, dealing with six different aspects of love. In the fifth story line, Lee plays the youngest son in a family of struggling street performers. A flashback of father and son performing for a crowd allows Lee, a ham at heart, to display his talent for showmanship. It’s utterly charming — and one of the best scenes of Lee’s career.
Lee’s first Hollywood cameo was a gift from his Oscar-winning kung fu student, Stirling Silliphant, who came up with the character of mob enforcer Winslow Wong for his mentor to play. There are moments when Lee, who was self-conscious about his Chinese accent, comes off as stiff and nervous as he exchanges snappy dialogue with James Garner’s Marlowe. But he eventually loosens up during a scene in which he demolishes Marlowe’s office in one continuous ballet of directed violence. The movie flopped at the box office and was panned by critics. Roger Ebert reserved his only praise for that action sequence, although he didn’t deem Lee important enough to use his name or get his ethnicity right: “Somewhere about the time when the Japanese karate expert wrecks his office (in a very funny scene), we realize Marlowe has lost track of the plot, too.”
Lee landed his first starring role with his fourth film, once again about a tough street urchin with a heart of gold. At just 10 years old, Lee shows off a range of emotions and raw charisma. In one scene, he humorously imitates his teacher; in another, he puffs himself up with cocky bravado by throwing his shoulders back and thumbing his nose at an opponent — one of his signature moves as an adult actor. The movie was a box-office hit and a sequel was planned that might have turned Lee into the Macaulay Culkin of Hong Kong, but his father refused to let him repeat the role. Lee was causing trouble in school and getting into fights on the streets, so his parents put him in show-business time-out until his behavior improved. (It didn’t, but they eventually let him continue acting anyway.)
Lee’s second contractual movie with Golden Harvest studios was his only period piece. He plays Chen Zhen, the student of a famous kung fu master in 1930s colonial Shanghai. When Chen Zhen discovers his master was killed by the Japanese, he unleashes his furious fists. The movie’s overt ethno-nationalism was like an adrenaline shot of pure patriotism; many Chinese fans ripped up their seat cushions and threw them around the theater when Lee’s character strutted into the Japanese dojo and declared, “The Chinese are not the sick men of Asia.” Interestingly, Lee was a fan of Japanese films, particularly Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman, and he approached his role with the exaggerated emotional style of Japanese samurai movies (chambara). It doesn’t quite work, but Lee’s fight choreography is so riveting it doesn’t matter.
For someone as worldly as Lee, he had a fondness for playing naïfs. In his first Golden Harvest movie, his character immigrates to Thailand to work in an ice factory, which is actually a front for a drug-smuggling operation. “He was a very simple, straightforward guy. Like if you told him something, he’d believe you,” Lee explained. “Then, when he finally figures out he’s been had, he goes animal.” His primal performance is the movie’s primary pleasure. He rips through his enemies with lustful glee. Hong Kong audiences were blown away. The Big Boss turned Lee into the biggest star in Southeast Asia.
Lee hoped this Hong Kong movie, which he wrote, directed, and starred in, would be his ticket back to Hollywood as a leading man. Lee plays Tang Lung, a naïve bumpkin sent to Rome to protect a Chinese restaurant from the Mafia. “Well, it is really a simple plot of a country boy going to place where he cannot speak the language but somehow he comes out on top, because he honestly and simply expressed himself,” Lee laughingly told Esquire, “by beating the hell out of everybody who gets in his way.” In his directorial debut, Lee was unable to balance the humor of the early fish-out-water scenes with the violence at the end. The film’s appeal rests almost entirely on his fight scene with his student, Chuck Norris — arguably the best one ever captured on celluloid.
Lee was never fully comfortable onscreen unless he was the star, and he had been waiting ten years, since The Kid, for a leading role. Modeling his troubled teenage character on James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, Lee give his most emotionally complex performance as an actor in this film. One moment he is snarling, the next laughing maniacally, and all the while spewing out a fetid stew of Cantonese street slang. Hong Kong boys were so taken with Lee’s swaggering hoodlum that they began to emulate how he smoked cigarettes and cha-cha danced, causing one concerned high-school principal to hang a banner across his school’s entrance reading: “No one is allowed to imitate Bruce Lee’s Ah Sum in The Orphan!”
This cheaply-made James Bond ripoff was supposed to be Lee’s entrée into superstardom. Instead, his death a month before its release left it the high-water mark of his career. The multiracial cast, the cat-stroking villain, and the tournament structure launched the West’s kung fu craze — and a thousand imitators. Terrified that Warner Bros. would recut the movie to make John Saxon the star, Lee fought onscreen and off to stamp his personality onto every frame. The result was a performance so intense he seems to vibrate off the screen. Two hours of watching Lee punch, kick, and hack his way through dozens of bad guys inspired millions of Western kids to take up the martial arts. Enter the Dragon is the movie that cemented Lee’s legacy, in film and beyond.
Matthew Polly is the author of Bruce Lee: A Life and two other books about the martial arts, American Shaolin and Tapped Out.