Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Brandon Lee: A Birthday Tribute. Part One: The Man

Some movies pass by the screen, and you enjoy them and simply walk away.  Some actors step up into their line of work and you enjoy their productions, but you don’t go as far as to say that they are a favorite or an inspiration.  There are some, however, that stand out in ways that just can’t be processed, imagined, or described.  Some that, from the second you see them on the screen, cause you to lean forward saying, “Who the heck WAS that?”  In honor of his upcoming 51st birthday on February 1st, I wanted to pay tribute to such a person, going over his life and some of his career highlights.

His name was Brandon Lee.  And the world just hasn’t been the same without him in it.

For those that aren’t aware of his career and are curious about the name, yes…you are guessing correctly.  The name is familiar and for good reason.  To start at the beginning, his father is exactly who you think it is.  His father was Bruce Lee, the most famed martial artist ever and quite frankly the reason most in my profession are able to do what we do.  In Bruce’s day it was not only unheard of amongst the Asian community to teach the martial arts to others outside of their ethnicity, but in their culture it was considered ethically illegal.  In Bruce’s efforts to spread this art to whomever wanted to learn regardless of race and/or religion a tribunal was formed and yup, you guessed it, he had to settle it in trial by combat (which he won in what Linda, Bruce wife, described in a comical fashion of chase as the combatant ran from Bruce repeatedly.)  Brandon was already on the way, his mother advanced in her pregnancy at that point.  Even before he got here, Brandon was on a road that would be both rewarding and difficult for his career being the son of such a legend.  As Bruce won this test and was able to teach, his teaching career grew, then his TV career grew, and then so did his movie career.  His sudden death when Brandon was eight years old was a shock to the entire world, but thinking about it from the perspective of his family is what I hope most would take from this.  To the world he was a legend.  To them he was a husband and a father.

Fast-forward to a child growing up.  When you have the label of being “Bruce Lee’s son,” the world automatically feels that you have something to prove whether you feel that you do or not.  Some people don’t like to parade the fact that they’re related to someone of that caliber; it can lead to attention that you don’t want.  When people think you have something to prove they start demanding that you prove it.  And boy oh boy, did the bullies attempt to get Brandon to do so.  It became a regular occurrence for Brandon to get accosted by kids wanting to see if Bruce’s son was as tough as his Daddy.  Brandon later referred to this penchant for schoolyard push-arounds as “Gunslinger syndrome,” stating that sometimes it didn’t even take someone going as far as needing to see what he could do by saying something like that.  “Frankly all someone had to say was ‘Your Bruce Lee's son, well your father was a wimp,’” he said.  “I don't consider getting into fights particularly admirable. I think it's the natural responsibility of an involved martial artist to avoid a confrontation. Within the last few years I have taken great pains to that unless someone physically threatens me.”  When it was decided that he would resume his martial arts training that his father had ingrained in him from toddler-hood, his first foyer back into this world didn’t go so well.  He walked into the studio of one of his father’s longtime students who, in honor of his father, had hung Bruce’s portraits on their wall.  Brandon ran out of the building as fast as his feet could carry him, in tears.  I can hardly blame him; I would have myself.

He grew up a very intelligent man, but one who loved bucking authority.  His constant need to be himself was a driving force and he himself admitted this later on.  When people keep comparing you to someone, either by bullying, by expectation, by looks, etc., it starts to wear you down.  He once said that people would have compared him to his father even if he had grown up to be a dentist.  That kind of "life as a footnote or comma" can wear thin.  The need to be yourself at whatever cost is gonna catch up quickly.  Being a troublemaker is probably going to be an avenue that arises, either by accident or design.  For Brandon, that just seemed to come naturally.  I mean that as a compliment, looking back on how goofy and downright confident he was.  The anger at the loss lead to a unique individual.

School wasn’t for him, he was an “in and out” kind of guy.  His tendency towards teenage angst and pushing boundaries got him booted from various high schools, including a prestigious private school in which, at the time, he was Class President (his attempts at advising the kids against following social and political norm were, according to his dismissal paper, “a poisonous influence to the minds” of his fellow students.”  After obtaining his GED he finally made it into College, realizing that his father’s talent for both the martial arts and acting seemed to have passed on to him.  He had always known from a young age that acting was what he wanted to do, but being good at something and pushing yourself to go out and do it are two very different things.  And the road from angry, disenfranchised youth to man who decides to get out there to make his dreams a reality can sometimes be a long one.  

At a young age he had made it passed the hurdle of training and had gotten back into that world, however he had yet to find his own place in the world at large that stuck with him.  Growing up a troublemaker and a “negative attention is attention” kind of guy, he himself admitted “I always had a pretty good knack for raising hell.”  Finding his niche in acting seemed to be his saving grace.  Well…to a point anyway.  His record of crazy stunts and practical jokes included, but were not limited to A:  Calling friends in the middle of the night to wake them up and tell them a dirty joke, laughing hysterically in their ear as he hung up on them, B:  riding his motorcycle at high speeds through the desert at night with no headlight on and his eyes closed, C:  buying a hearse with one of his movie role payouts as his first car (His sense of humor.  He told his then girlfriend it was “Great for camping,”)  D:  standing outside of the DMV in a suit with a clipboard and taking a clueless teen on her driver’s test, handing her a folded slip of paper he had scribbled gibberish on afterwards, and telling her she had passed her test and to go inside for her license.  He later said that while he felt that this was the last major prank he could pull off as he had just turned eighteen, in hindsight he realized it could have actually gotten him arrested.  He also said that he realized it could have been worse as he admitted in an interview that he had almost written “I have a bomb in my purse.  Give me all your money” on the paper.  Yeah…that could have been bad…

He kept that goofiness and general cocky swagger throughout his life, however, but in a playful way that made people warm to him in the strangest of ways.  His confidence was often misread as arrogance, his zest for life as a death wish.  Lou Diamond Phillips, a longtime friend of Lee’s, once stated that the man was a “boiling mass of energy.”  Brandon’s own fiancé admitted that upon meeting him he rubbed her as arrogant with his constant discussion about himself and his career while meeting with agents at an office she worked at.  One can understand how that confidence in himself can be misconstrued that way if you see the reasons behind it.  His road was different than others in his career, so it would make confidence in himself appear as such to the untrained eye.  When Brandon set out into the acting world he received his fair share of offers…but at the expense of the one tag line that was oft written by studio execs on the back of his headshots:  “Bruce Lee’s son.”  He once saw this written on a headshot and visibly cringed.  When the exec asked if it bothered you, he feigned disinterest, telling her that it didn't bother him in the more than it would bother her if he said she were simply a "blonde with big tits."  It would have been enough to wear on anyone: always being compared to another.  For Brandon, however, it was more painful.  His father was his universe; being grateful for the legacy was one thing, but only making his career his own because he shared DNA with someone else?  One could only imagine what would go through someone’s head.  He turned down many roles for that reason alone before some realization was drummed into him that he could at least use this to get his foot in the door…and use his own talent to kick it the heck down.  And that he did.

Brandon was one quoted on that very matter as saying this:
“I feel that I’ve gotten opportunities that I probably would not have gotten, or at least in a different fashion would have gotten, were I NOT his son.  And I’m very grateful for that, you know?  But as far as following in his footsteps go… if one means by that, would I like to achieve the same level of excellence that he did…yes.  Of course I would.  In any field.  You know?  But does it mean that I want to imitate him in any way, shape, or form…no.  Because imitation is… it’s pale, you know?  It’s not good.  And besides which, we’re just different people.  I mean, we grew up under very different circumstances.  In different countries, speaking different languages, reading different books, dating different women, and doing everything differently.  So, that’s how I feel about it.”  

In one of the last interviews Brandon gave while filming “The Crow,” he was also quoted as saying, “I don’t know if I was destined to play this role, but I feel very fortunate to be doing so.”  From the moment the script landed in his possession he felt something very strong in the movie and its plot and voiced this opinion in every interview that he could give.  He died with only a few days of his shooting schedule left, with only minor scenes left to fill in the gaps.  Loads of the cast and crew were at the hospital waiting on word of his condition, but only a select few were allowed to see him.  His fiancé and two best friends from the production were the first to receive word of his passing.  The film catapulted Brandon into a cult status that no one saw coming, and not even because of the mystery surrounding his death.  It was the praise of his abilities that shined through.  The many reviews of his portrayal of an emotionally crippled man driven to insanity by what had been done to him and his made the movie stand out as one of Mirimax studios crown jewels of the 1990's.  The movie has lived on in the geekdom in tribute at conventions in the form of costumes and in gear at Exhibition halls; I puddle up every time I see someone dressed as him and silently thank them for their tribute.  Even O’Barr, creator of the comic, re-released a special edition of The Crow in graphic novel form, and in his editorial introduction to the re-release he acknowledged that after Brandon’s death he was crippled by guilt for ever creating the comic until Brandon’s fiancé gave five powerful words of support to him:

“James, it isn't your fault.”

He even dedicated the re-release of the comic to Brandon, with the caption “In Memory of Brandon Lee.  You'll be sadly missed.”  

And that he always will.

"The Crow" graphic novel re-release dedication.

Robert Zuckerman, still photographer for the movie, later wrote a poem expressing his feelings on the loss of Brandon Lee:

And he left us,
Yet in his absence,
His presence is
And shall be
Stronger than ever.
For he is
Everywhere now,
And he is
Inside of us.

We, who witnessed
The brilliance
Of his flame
And were warmed
By its heat;
We who heard
The chimes
Of his churchbell laughter
Ring the plains
Of starry dawns;

We, who stand
In the pure rain
Of his divine
And noble spirit
Are now its
Blessed, honored keepers.
Within and through us
He shall live on
And our lives
Shall ever be enriched
By him
In ways
Wondrous and untold

Fly high, dear friend.

Yeah…that can sum up the best in someone like that.  Especially someone that had profound an impact on a person’s life.  But then again, that’s just this writer’s humble opinion.  I’ll leave it to you to decide that for yourself.  Stay tuned, as part two of my memorial to Brandon touches on a countdown of some of his best films…including a surprise nugget that I found in my research that any Lee fan will be interested in checking out.  Trust me, you’ll wanna see this.

“Keep the faith.”

Christina Sizemore is trained in only four things:  writing, fighting, paranormal investigating, and being a mom.  At this point in her life she truly feels that she is not qualified to attempt to learn any new field.  A twenty year martial artist, mother of three, and writer who is working on the publication of her first book titled “Finding Your Way: A Guide To Your Path In The Martial Arts,” she spends her days working out, writing, making fanvids, going to DragonCon, and playing board games/video games/out in the yard with her kids and husband who are just as geeky as she is.  She is convinced that one day her skills will be of assistance in the Zombie Apocalypse and that while she is of no use in the kitchen, she can Buffy that zombie for ya or teach you the best way to get the blood stains out of your clothes (Psst…the secret is mixing Crown Cleaner and Shout.  Just sayin’.)

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