“I did this show so Desi and I could be together.’ Nicole Kidman’s Lucy says toward the end of Being the Ricardos. The series was a home for its star, never mind the 60 million viewers who tuned in every week. But I Love Lucy was a work of fiction that required tremendous sacrifice from its leads to the very end.
Behind the scenes simmered a highly tense early Hollywood power-couple in the Arnez’s. This was a passionate, well-publicized interracial marriage. Uncommon at the time. But Lucille Ball was not any ordinary ‘B-movie actress’ and Desi Arnaz was more than just a refugee bandleader from Cuba.
Being the Ricardos is an ode to hard work, creative genius, and adhering to one’s instincts in the face of mounting pressures and potential backlash. Nicole Kidman embodies Lucille Ball. She is determined, conveying both a warmth and a cool demeanor simultaneously to get what Lucy wants out of her actors, directors, studio executives, and husband Desi Arnaz, played with verve and panache by Javier Bardem.
It’s a dynamic, multi-layered screenplay, honed by Aaron Sorkin-who’s also the director-that uses a faux-documentary framework to introduce a 1950’s workplace drama with adept, quick-witted characters and heavy stakes. Actors play real-life crew members interviewed on camera to recount specific events from one select week in the production of I Love Lucy in its second season in 1953. In this 1-week time frame, we’re confronted with at least four problems that Lucy, our central protagonist, must deal with: the direction of a particular episode’s intro, her suspicion of her husband Desi’s infidelity, her pending pregnancy and its effects on the show and the possibility of her entire professional career coming apart due to a recent news article that accuses her of being a Communist.
In addition to all of these challenges, we follow the legendary comedienne and her handlings of numerous figureheads during her time as an actor under an RKO movie studio contract and as a frustrated radio performer leading up to her early years in broadcast television.
In TV, Lucille Ball hits her mark. But societal conventions come down hard on the Arnez’s in the form of media censorship done in the interest of the CBS Corporation and Philip Morris, the latter being a chief sponsor. The powers that be object to Lucy’s actual pregnancy getting written into the show. They consider even the word ‘pregnant’ vulgar and indecent. At this point, I’m less abhorred by the restrictions embodied by suit-and-tie executives from a bygone era and more impressed by just how progressive and forward-thinking both Desi and Lucy were.
Desi Arnaz was an innovator in television, coming up with Multicam set-ups that allowed the studio audience to watch the action unobstructed and giving viewers at home sharper imaging than what the “foggy kinescope” provided at the time. And you get an idea of how Lucille Ball’s gift for physical comedy actually worked through a few let’s call them creative dream sequences that show Lucy playing out a scene beat-by-beat before it is written. It’s a bit tacky — reminding me of the CGI projections by Russel Crowe’s John Nash in A Beautiful Mind-but effective, making her a sketch comedy clairvoyant of sorts.
What surprised me about Being the Ricardos was its focus on the Communist controversy. While historically accurate, the film spends less time acknowledging potential obstacles a Caucasian woman might have married to a Latino man in 1940 and 50s America. Scenes of their budding romance are charming and Lucy’s frustrations with type-casting and being marginalized as a woman make for excellent insights into what drove these two unique individuals, but a closer examination of their life as an interracial couple would have resonated more with me. Perhaps Sorkin wanted to convey that their relationship didn’t become an issue until Lucy made it an issue, or more precisely made it an artistic demand while negotiating with the aforementioned crumby old suit-and-tie brigade.
And I was disappointed to not hear that classic I Love Lucy theme until roughly 90 minutes into the film. I guess a part of me wants to see more of the iconography and less of the behind-the-scenes disarray. This is, after all, Lucille Ball. ‘I Love Lucy’ is like the Beatles or Happy Days for me, ingrained into my childhood.
That’s another story I guess. But Being the Ricardos succeeds at honoring its larger-than-life characters while offering a compelling behind-the-scenes take on the making of one of the funniest, most memorable shows ever made.