I used to watch I Love Lucy as a child (in re-runs of course – I’m not that old). I would have watched all 180 episodes through probably several times. Not that I loved the show that much – even then I found Lucy’s loudmouthed vulgarity annoying and I used to wonder how such a handsome man could end up married to such a shrill nitwit; but in those days there wasn’t that much on TV – only three channels, no pay TV, no streaming, no videos – so we watched EVERYTHING that was on.
Nowadays I Love Lucy is regarded as one of the foundational texts of American TV comedy, a suitable object of study for post-modern scholars and academic feminists, a kind of curio in the pop culture museum.
I being young of course took it at face value and saw nothing exceptional in the basic storyline, which was that Lucy was forever trying to get into showbiz and her showbiz husband was forever putting down her efforts to do so and urging her to be satisfied with her role as a housewife. Their neighbours the Mertzes (the actor who plays Vivian Vance looks astonishingly like her) were former vaudevillians who took Ricky’s side. Lucy invariably ended up looking like a klutz and falling apologetically into the arms of her indulgent husband after the failure of yet another of her madcap schemes, although she never gave up.
Desi Arnaz essentially played himself in I Love Lucy but the same can’t be said of Lucille Ball. Lucy was a typical 50s homebody onscreen but in real life Lucille Ball was an astute businesswoman and the driving force behind Desilu, their joint production company which made the show and wielded considerable power in Hollywood.
The show was insanely popular in the 50s and 60s, and back in those days before the advent of 2nd wave feminism, nobody commented on this paradox and nobody complained about the infantilized caricature of domestic femininity that was Lucy Ricardo.
I was keen to see Being the Ricardos, partly from childhood nostalgia and partly to see what cerebral screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s take on it would be.
The plot takes us through a week of production of a single episode of I Love Lucy, with flashbacks to episodes in their off-screen relationship, including their first meeting. There are occasional interview sequences in which contemporary industry insiders deliver context and background. (These are supposedly from a later documentary about the show, but the talking heads are played by actors, the real people having either died or being too old to play themselves.)
One of the purposes of these ‘documentary’ inserts is to convey to modern viewers just how popular I Love Lucy was. One talking head tells how a major live sporting event was moved from its regular Monday night schedule to avoid a clash with the popular sitcom. Another explains that at the peak of its popularity some 70% of all TV viewers were tuned to I Love Lucy, a ratings record that has never been surpassed.
I found myself wishing I could see that documentary, or that Aaron Sorkin had taken his focus out to take in more of that big picture stuff. Instead, his approach is to move the storyline forward in intense conversations between the players, as he did in The West Wing.
Sure, there are big things to talk about: the accusation that Lucille Ball was a communist, which did threaten their success at the height of the McCarthy era; and her pregnancy, which the sponsor (Phillip Morris) and the EP wanted to keep offscreen. Ball and Arnaz faced them down and got their way in having Lucille’s real-life pregnancy coincide with Lucy’s onscreen one. The talky approach works well enough here although there never was any live onscreen call to J Edgar Hoover.
But otherwise there’s too much talk about small beer. His characters are forever going off for intense heart-to-hearts: William Frawley taking Lucille aside for some older-man wisdom on flattering the male ego; Lucille and one of the writers having a girly chat about the way women are treated in showbiz. One by one he ticks off the issues she has with each of the characters. And the timing’s off…many of these discussions take place while the studio audience is supposedly patiently waiting.
Sorkin has his characters talk about Ball’s supposed mastery of physical comedy, but there’s too much tell and not enough show here. She doesn’t come across as madcap or funny off-screen. In fact as played by Nicole Kidman she comes across as rather dour.
So does Kidman deserve the Golden Globe for her portrayal of Lucille Ball in Being The Ricardos? I don’t think so. When she’s done up as Lucy, with the tight red curls, the heavy eye make-up and the chintzy costumes, Kidman manages a passable physical resemblance, but she’s not brassy enough, not vulgar enough, and her lipstick isn’t red enough!
Lucille Ball would contort her facial features grotesquely to play the ditzy redhead – all popping eyes and distended mouth. Our Nic is just too delicate-featured and pretty to turn herself into a gargoyle. Or maybe she’s had so much facial work she’s physically incapable of doing it.
For another thing, Lucille Ball played Lucy with a voice like a fishwife. Nic doesn’t or won’t or can’t put on such raucous vulgarity.
What about Xavier Bardem as Desi Arnaz/Ricky Ricardo? He’s okay, but he looks a bit too old and weatherbeaten to play the handsome, smoothly groomed Cuban bandleader who was six years younger than his wife. This age difference is mentioned in the script, but as played by Bardem and Kidman, it looks to be reversed!
Sorry for being picky, but I might have caught Sorkin out in some verbal anachronisms. I’ll have to take his word for it that there were ‘showrunners’ in the 50s and 60s, but surely the term ’gaslighting’ is a coinage of the social media age? And I don’t remember people ever talking about being ‘comfortable’ with things back then either. I was there, and the only things that were comfortable or uncomfortable were beds or chairs!
You can watch it in Australia on Amazon Prime.