Directed by Aaron Sorkin
Rated R (Language)
Now playing at Laemmle Newhall; begins streaming Dec. 21 on Amazon Prime
Where does one start with the careers of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz? Theirs is a decades-long story of genuine love, creative frustration, glass ceilings for female and immigrant performers, mutual respect, long-term success, romantic betrayal, and ultimately, their emergence as two legends of broadcasting. That’s a lot for one movie to carry, but the ever-resourceful writer/director Aaron Sorkin has made a critical and wise decision to smush all of that narrative into a single week on the set of “I Love Lucy” – a week that could represent two lifetimes.
“Being the Ricardos” revolves around the production of “Fred and Ethel Fight,” the 22nd episode of the first season of “I Love Lucy.” Things are going great: Lucy (Nicole Kidman) is the biggest star on television and an inspired creative force while her husband Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) wields his influence behind the scenes. Both have earned respect of both CBS and their key sponsor Phillip Morris. Unfortunately, two nasty rumors about Lucy and Desi have surfaced, and they could derail the show.
The first is true: Desi is fooling around with other women (lots) behind Lucy’s back. Lucy uses willful ignorance to put aside what she rightly suspects about Desi, but she’s also distracted by a rumor of her own involving her possible involvement with the Communist Party. There’s only a whiff of truth to this one — she once claimed to be a communist on a voter registration when she was much younger and with the desire to please her grandfather. The network fears this could blow up into something bigger. And, as if Lucy and her show needed any more pressure, she chooses this week to announce that she’s pregnant. To CBS’ horror and disbelief, Desi wants to work the pregnancy into the show. Now, in the middle of her well-earned success, Lucy finds that the Sword of Damocles is hanging over both her show and her marriage. Can Lucy and Desi juggle these pressures and manage to put on a good show?
This multi-layered crisis is the core of “Being the Ricardos.” Flashbacks are also devoted to showing Lucy and Desi’s meet-cute and initial courtship, as well as their early-career days when Lucy was a frustrated RKO contract ingénue, and Desi was a nightclub performer who craved a chance to act. There’s also a lot of time spent on the backstage shenanigans of producing, rehearsing and filming an episode of “I Love Lucy.”
It’s this portion of the movie that’s the most enjoyable. Sorkin has an ear for the back-and-forth machinations that occur behind the scenes of otherwise public personalities, and he is at his witty best here. For a film that’s pretty packed with narrative, Sorkin has time to give voice to the individual writers, sponsors, network executives, craftspeople and assistants who collaborate to put on a weekly network TV show. He also gives voice to the two people who seem to be overlooked when discussing the lasting impact of “I Love Lucy”: co-stars William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (the sublime Nina Arianda). Arianda in particular gives a moving performance as an actress who is committed to her work but frustrated by a part that demands that she always sacrifice her self-image to the laugh. Simmons is an appropriately gruff and sarcastic Frawley.
It was certainly reasonable for Lucy’s fans to be dubious when Nicole Kidman was cast as their idol. However, they need not have worried. Kidman is a gifted mimic, and she gets Lucy just right both on and off camera. Considering the score and range of Lucy’s journey, it’s a remarkable performance, and it’s sometimes necessary to shake off the impression that Lucille Ball is actually right in front of us.
Javier Bardem embodies Desi Arnaz with relentless energy and brio. His impersonation is not as finely tuned as Kidman’s, but one never doubts that Arnaz is, as Lucy claims, a genius who is irresistible to women. Bardem’s charisma is seductive, and it’s no surprise that Arnaz almost always gets his way.
Attention must be paid to the look of the film. Production designer Jon Hutman and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth bring amazing authenticity to the overall 1952 feel of the film. It’s great pleasure to see the “I Love Lucy” set, so recorded in our memories in black and white, presented in color and reproduced with such an obsessive eye for detail. The same can be said for every location from the Arnaz household to the bar that William Frawley visits every morning at 10 a.m.
Unlike lesser biographies, one walks away from this film feeling like something was actually learned and that fresh insights to character and craft have been revealed but not sensationalized. Although it’s not part of the film, the fact that Lucy and Desi did not last as a couple leaves a melancholy after-taste. Fortunately, what has come before is such fun that it hardly matters.
Jed Blaugrund is an English teacher at West Ranch High School, and a resident of Stevenson Ranch. Before becoming a teacher, he graduated from the USC School of Cinema/Television and worked for more than 20 years in the film business.