“Bruce Lee: A Life” (Simon & Schuster), by Matthew Polly, and “Sterling Hayden’s Wars” (University Press of Mississippi), by Lee Mandel
Martial arts icon Bruce Lee wanted to be known around the world, and he built the perfect platform to do so as an international film star. An accidental actor, Sterling Hayden never felt right about appearing on movie screens anywhere and was more at ease at the wheel of a ship on the high seas.
Both struggled, in different times and places, to achieve their dreams. Hayden grew up poor in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, Lee in middle-class Hong Kong in the ‘40s and 1950s. Self-doubt bedeviled Hayden while Lee brimmed with self-confidence. A trait they shared often hurt those around them: self-indulgence.
New biographies explore with unusual depth the private lives of these unlikely movie stars, whose screen legacies rely on just a handful of films. Lee is best remembered in the U.S. for “Fist of Fury” (1972) and “Enter the Dragon” (1973), released the month he died. Hayden starred in two film-noir classics, “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950) and “The Killing” (1956), and he had prominent supporting roles in the landmark films “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) and “The Godfather” (1972).
Filled with recollections from colleagues, friends and family, Matthew Polly’s “Bruce Lee: A Life” is proof that dogged research and sharp insight lie at the foundation of any successful biography. Its 600-plus pages suggest a definitive work to satisfy Lee’s fans and spark curiosity in a new generation.
Lee (1940-1973) was born in the U.S. and appeared in Hong Kong films as a child. A natural charmer even as a youngster, his antics away from the cameras threatened his future as he cultivated a reputation as a street fighter and bully who couldn’t control his temper.
Martial arts became his passion as well as a tool for self-discipline. Sent to Seattle as a teenager after his expulsion from private school and trouble with the law, Lee matured and found a sense of purpose - to revolutionize martial arts. He did so by mixing traditional kung fu with his own superfast, freewheeling fighting style.
On the West Coast he developed a following as a competitor and as a teacher. His Hollywood connections - actors Steve McQueen and James Coburn and screenwriter Stirling Silliphant - were among his students - led to the role of Kato on the short-lived TV series “The Green Hornet” (1966-67).
Few roles followed in an American entertainment industry that had little use for Asian actors beyond stereotypes. Stardom in Asia and beyond came via Hong Kong action films like “The Big Boss” (1971). Lee used that surprising success to start calling the shots on his films, though he made only a handful before his death.
In “Sterling Hayden’s Wars,” author Lee Mandel offers far more information about the actor’s turbulent life than his film career, an unusual approach for a biography of a movie star. Clearly, the interests of the author, a retired Navy physician, lie outside the craft of filmmaking. Then again, so did Hayden’s. He saw Hollywood as a place to earn a dollar and held little regard for what he called “the racket,” largely because he was drawn in on his looks - a 6-foot-5 blond Adonis in his teens - rather than actual talent.
Mandel makes the case that Hayden (1916-1986) fought against a dysfunctional childhood, the Nazis, the Hollywood establishment, the communist witch hunt of the 1950s, an ex-wife and, most of all, himself. No matter what he achieved, whether a Silver Star as a Marine or an acting career that spanned 60 or so film credits and several TV roles, Hayden felt like a faker. He could be his own worst enemy, too, such as the time he defied a judge’s order and courted financial ruin to take his four young children on a voyage to Tahiti and back.
Granted unique access to Hayden’s diaries and other personal papers, Mandel also puts to good use government records to flesh out the wartime exploits and “red scare” experiences of the reluctant actor. Yet he relies so heavily on Hayden’s 1963 memoir, “Wanderer,” that some events feel rehashed.
Lee’s accidental death at 32 was linked to brain swelling caused, some concluded, by a drug reaction, but Polly makes a convincing argument for heat stroke. What could have been a singular presence in world cinema instead became an endearing cult figure.
Hayden was 70 when he died of cancer after a lifetime of regrets and self-recriminations he sought to soften with alcohol and hashish. Fate had the last laugh: The pursuit Hayden cared for the least remains the reason he’ll be remembered.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Anne Bancroft: A Life” (University Press of Kentucky).
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