I didn’t grow up watching I Love Lucy, but you would be living under a rock if you don’t know about the show or the stars, Lucille Ball and her then real-life husband Desi Arnaz as Lucy & Ricky Ricardo. I knew the show was popular but in case you didn’t know just how popular it was, the film’s opening shows scenes of the show runner and writers of the series talking about what a huge hit it was. Spanning six years on CBS from Fall 1951 – Spring 1957, it was the most-watched series for most of its six seasons.
Renowned screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who’s written mostly politically-charged series like The West Wing or films such as A Few Good Men, The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War. He’s ventured into directing once again after The Trial of the Chicago 7 last year, marking his third directorial effort since Molly’s Game in 2017. Now, I haven’t seen either one of those two, so this is the first time I saw a film he directed. Instead of a traditional biopic, the film focuses on Ball and Arnaz’s romantic and professional relationship as well as the creative process of a scripted tv series. The film spans only one week during a particularly critical production of the series where three major events took place.
In a time where being associated with Communism would mean the death of one’s career, it’s especially disastrous for one with a wholesome, all-American image. Well, a right-wing broadcaster shares that Lucy had told the House Un-American Activities Committee that she had registered to vote as a Communist in 1936. On top of that, Lucy saw a photo of her husband canoodling with another woman, AND then she also found out she’s pregnant with her first child, all in the same week!
I have to say it was a bit tough to follow the timeline at times, as the film would go into flashback mode throughout, such as the time when Lucy and Desi first met. I do appreciate that Sorkin would show clips depicting certain scenes from I Love Lucy as the team are working on putting the episode together. For the most part, Sorkin illustrates the depth of Lucy’s involvement behind the scenes, that she had specific ideas about the show and she wasn’t afraid to show what she want, much to the frustration of the show runner Jess (Tony Hale) and its writers Madelyn (Alia Shawkat) & Bob (Jake Lacy). Lucy also butt heads with her co-stars, William Frawley (Nina Arianda) and Vivian Vance (J.K. Simmons) who play the Ricardos’ neighbors Fred & Ethel. On top of being committed to the series, Lucy was also committed to making her marriage work, as well as trying to keep her career afloat after being fired by RKO Studios.
In terms of casting, I actually first heard about this project when Nicole Kidman was cast as Lucille, which I have to admit was kind of an odd choice at first. Interestingly enough, it was actually fellow Aussie actress Cate Blanchett (a huge fan of the late comedienne) who was first attached in 2018. I know that people expect that actors cast in a biopic should have a strong resemblance to the subject they’re playing, but of course that’s not always possible.
For me, it’s more important that an actor convey the ‘essence’ of the character, more so than having a physical resemblance. So in that regard, Kidman turns out to be inspired choice and her performance is absolutely terrific, showing the vulnerability as well as strength of a shrewd actress. I think Kidman nails the mannerism and even Ball’s voice in most of the scenes, especially when she’s portraying Lucy Ricardo in the black & white clips from the series. I was hoping they’d show a clip of the hilarious chocolate factory scene, but the clip of the grape-stomping episode did make me laugh.
Sorkin portrays Lucy as not only a brilliant comedienne but also a passionate and sexy woman. I think because of her comedic roles, most people don’t see her as sexy and provocative, but she’s definitely more than meets the eye. Kidman captures the essence of Lucy as a formidable artist, and having seen this film, it’s no surprise she was the first woman to ever own a film studio, Desilu Productions (which apparently produced Star Trek and Mission Impossible, among others). Desilu later also owned RKO–living well is the best revenge, isn’t it?
It was fun seeing Javier Bardem flex his comedic chops as Desi, though he looks nothing like Desi at all despite the makeup team doing their best. His casting was apparently controversial as well given he’s a Spanish actor playing a Cuban. But again, I feel that Bardem also did a fine job portraying the essence of Arnaz’ persona, the charming band leader who’s popular with the ladies and often succumbs to his womanizing ways. As the film lean heavily more on Lucy, I don’t think Bardem was given as much to do here though. The film also seems one-sided in terms of its depiction of the couple’s infidelity, implying that only Desi was constantly cheating on his wide. The more I read about this famous couple, Lucy wasn’t all that innocent and was also unfaithful to her husband, which includes an extended fling with Henry Fonda.
Sorkin captures the era of the early 50s with the sepia-toned look and era-appropriate costumes + set pieces. He made some interesting choices as a director, such as the documentary-style interviews with the older version of Jess, Madelyn and Bob (portrayed by John Rubinstein, Linda Lavin and Ronny Cox, respectively) sharing their own memories of that roller-coaster week. What I appreciate most is the inner workings of the show itself, as Sorkin takes the audience into the writers’ room, the table read with all the cast and down to its soundstage as they filmed the episode in front of a studio audience. It’s as if we’re given exclusive access into the making of a tremendously popular sitcom.
One memorable scene was when Lucy got two of her co-stars who play Fred & Ethel to rehearse a scene at 2 in the morning! They protest profusely at first (and rightly so), but they agreed as soon as Lucy explains her reasoning for such an extreme request. There’s also a memorable conversation between Simmons and Kidman as Farley advises Lucy about her marriage, which shows how close the show’s team have become over the years that they’re practically family, warts and all. All the supporting cast, including Clark Gregg as a CBS exec, are great and they bring Sorkin’s dynamic and witty dialogue to life.
I think people who are more familiar with the series would appreciate this behind-the-scenes look which clearly is no laughing matter, in fact, it’s as far away from the wholesome, fun and convivial vibe of the series as it gets. Now, I think confining the film to just one week is compelling but also unrealistic and makes it a bit confusing to watch. I suppose it’s an over-dramatization of a true story so I’ll let it pass. As someone who isn’t too familiar with Lucille Ball’s life, I find it quite entertaining and eye-opening in presenting Lucy as a complex artist who weathered the storm during a turbulent period of her professional and personal life.
Have you seen BEING THE RICARDOS? Well, what did you think?