Being the Ricardos
Creative genius on the set of I Love Lucy collides with network heads and a looming scandal in Aaron Sorkin's new movie.
This may sound like a paradox…. Nicole Kidman’s performance in Being the Ricardos is one of her best in recent times.
But I did struggle to see Lucille Ball.
Does that make the movie a disappointment? Not at all. It offers great insight into the business acumen and relationship with Desi Arnaz. And it’s highly entertaining because of it.
Most of Aaron Sorkin’s film is ‘behind the scenes’, with Kidman only required to assume ‘Lucy Ricardo’ schtick during brief sitcom scenes.
The script hangs largely around a week during Season Two in 1953, although there are also flashbacks to key moments such as the couple meeting or how the sitcom was commissioned from radio.
Central to the storyline is the true-life fact that Ball had appeared before House Un-American Activities Committee investigator William A. Wheeler. In scandal-ridden Hollywood, it was headline stuff that “Lucille Ball is a Red.” And we’re not talking hair colour here, folks.
Sorkin cleverly weaves this together with her second pregnancy (Desi Arnaz Jr.) and the problem of how a pregnant Lucy Ricardo could be filmed for wholesome TV audiences -the network and sponsors were against the very mention of the idea.
“You can’t have a pregnant woman on television…. pregnant women often vomit,” they are told.
But behind every good comedienne is a firebrand Cuban producer, calling the shots and, when necessary, the bluff of the powers that be. As Desi Arnaz, Javier Bardem does all he can to protect Lucy and the DesiLu Studios property they have steered into a national hit. It’s a game of Hollywood brinkmanship, but few counted on the nerve of the Latino who had already broken every rule in the book just to get to where he is.
The third sub-plot at play is Ball’s suspicion that Arnaz may be cheating on her. Ricky may have some ‘splainin to do….
Caught in this triple play crossfire are co-stars William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) who play harangued I Love Lucy neighbours, Fred & Ethel Mertz. Their exchanges off-screen reveal bickering in equal measure at the rehearsal table, but Sorkin also gifts us Vance’s frustration at having to portray the dowdy housewife, and Frawley’s insight into the Ball / Arnaz marriage. These are wonderful inclusions.
There’s also a showrunner struggling to keep his show together (Tony Hale), and a writer (Alia Shawkat) in whom Ball regularly confides -there’s a great debate about whether Lucy is “dumb.”
But it is the blazing, intense marriage of the leading lady and man that underpins this story.
As one producer recalls, “They were either tearing each other’s heads off or tearing each others’ clothes off.”
Kidman avoids affecting a Lucy voice (which could be high and loud when she was young, less so as she matured), and instead drives for the spirit of Ball. This she achieves with remarkable success. Javier Bardem is similarly nothing like Arnaz physically, but never lets up on his business genius (the man invented the multicam so as not to lose facial shots of his wife’s work) nor his devotion to his wife.
If you’re not familiar with the Lucy story this is a must-see, and if you are you’ll no doubt be enthralled seeing it celebrated in all its glory and flaws.
Being the Ricardos screens Tuesday on Amazon Prime Video.