If Being the RicardosIt would have been a boring movie about the evils of Hollywood’s blacklist and House Un-American Activities Committee. But as the story of a marriage between two brilliant professionals, one of whom—the man, incidentally—often took a backseat to his more dazzling partner, it feels breezily modern. The RicardosAaron Sorkin directed the film, which focuses on one week in Lucille Ball’s life (played by Nicole Kidman and Desi Arnaz) (Javier Bardem). But it’s really a story about two people who, without knowing it, looked ahead to the future of men and women in America—a future of equality that’s still unfolding, but was, even so, largely unimaginable in the 1950s.
Together, they created the hit TV show Ball and Arnaz. I Love Lucy aired from 1951 to 1957, and was basically a half-hour receptacle for delightfully ludicrous plots: Arnaz’s Ricky was a famous bandleader; his wife, Ball’s Lucy, dreamed of being in show business and would try anything to break in, much to Ricky’s embarrassment. Vivian Vance played Fred Mertz, while William Frawley was brilliantly rendered here by Nina Arianda. Ethel Mertz, their closest friends, lived right next to them in their New York City apartment. Comedy of I Love LucyWhile it may seem wide today, the genius of Ball is evident when you look closely. Her vibrant features and willingness to take up space with her quirky, playful physicality make her one of America’s most beloved comic actresses. But the Cuban-born Arnaz was the show’s secret weapon, the handsome straight man—himself a beautiful caricature, with bold, tell-all eyebrows and a chilled-martini-glass smile—whose own delicately calibrated timing reflected and magnified everything that was funny about his wife.
With Being the Ricardos, Sorkin strives to capture the show’s behind-the-scenes mechanisms and tensions—including the way Frawley and Vance grated on each other’s nerves, sometimes almost explosively, as well as Ball’s casually cruel efforts to keep Vance, a close friend in real life, from losing too much weight, all for the sake of the show. (The clear subtext was that Lucy’s character should be the thin one, while Ethel needed to be the “heavier” bestie, the one who looked more like most American women.) But Sorkin being Sorkin, he can’t help building a civics lesson around this story: The movie takes place during a single week, just after hugely popular radio host Walter Winchell outed Ball for her Communist affiliation, despite the fact that she had just testified to the HUAC and been cleared. The accusation could have killed not just the show but Ball’s career. Being the RicardosArnaz acted quickly and skillfully to save the day.
There’s nothing wrong, exactly, with using that framework to give a script some momentum. It’s simply that the dynamic between Arnaz and Ball—and between Ball and the show’s other stars—is so fascinating by itself that the heavily intoned excoriation of the villainous HUAC feels superfluous. Sorkin details, with light brushstrokes, the nature of the often turbulent Arnaz-Ball relationship, including flashbacks to their early days as a couple: He’d work nights as a nightclub entertainer, she’d have to be up early to be on set for whatever movie she might be working on. They’d meet for a few minutes in the Hollywood Hills, between their work shifts. So they could be together in person, they decided to create a TV show.
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Being the Ricardos shows us how these shows took shape, beginning with early-in-the-week table readings, during which Ball would visualize each gag and fiddle with it, to everyone’s annoyance, until she achieved comic perfection. (One thread follows her obsessive tweaking of one scene, involving the setting of the Ricardos’ dinner table, that ends up lasting about 20 seconds on-screen—and shows how sharp Ball’s instincts were. That’s the intricacy of comedy for you.) Kidman makes a fine Lucille Ball in many ways: we get a sense of her quicksilver intelligence, obvious in the way she’ll stop a conversation midtrack to express doubt about a certain line of dialogue. At one point she spins out ideas for a sequence—one of the show’s most famous—in which Lucy, having traveled to Italy, tries her hand at squishing winemaking grapes with her feet. The crackerjack detail she comes up with is Lucy’s loss of an earring in the sodden purple mess.
But if Ball is buzzing with ideas, it’s Arnaz the businessman who keeps the ship running straight and true: In real life, he was the architect behind the duo’s production company, Desilu, taking steps to ensure the enterprise continued to make money long after the show’s run ended. In The Ricardos we see how the so-called wearing of the pants was a point of pride for him—but also ways in which he couldn’t help feeling overshadowed by his extraordinary wife. Kidman is good at capturing Ball’s smarts; but she’s a bit too cool and composed to suggest the fiery charisma that burned there too—and as gorgeous as she is, her features don’t come close Ball’s gonzo beauty. Bardem’s performance is the surprise here, not because he isn’t a terrific actor, but because his features are all wrong. His nose is a touch too big, and his mouth a bit dry. Arnaz was fleet, with a dancer’s frame, while Bardem is solid and earthy.
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But then, that’s how actors surprise you. Bardem’s performance as Arnaz is amazing. He uncovers complexities within the man we may not have noticed. When he deflects Lucy’s accusations of philandering, we can’t be sure if he’s lying or not—but his pillowy charm somehow makes every word believable. Even if Ricky and Lucy seemed to be average in 1950s fashion, they were still entertaining viewers. Being the RicardosThis shows just how poor the performances of these characters were. At one point, Ball reveals to the show’s producers that she’s pregnant with the couple’s second child. As she grows larger, the men start to plan how they can keep filming while keeping her belly hidden. Ball doesn’t give up: She wants everyone to see Lucy Ricardo, pregnant. It is not something she should be ashamed of.
The decision to “allow” Lucy to be pregnant on national television was a huge one. But what’s remarkable about the decision-making scene, as Sorkin frames it, is the formidable front that Arnaz builds in defense of his wife. And there’s a subtle irony in the fact that, if Latin men might often be stereotyped as macho or controlling, Arnaz stood with Ball before a group of white advertising and television executives and shamed them into acknowledging the reality of an experience that many of their own wives had gone through.
Even though Arnaz was divorced from Ball in 1960 their business empire continued. Being the RicardosThis fascinating, strong, and interesting marriage and business partnership is constantly in the background. It deals with petty jealousies, big ones, little battles, and quiet waged wars. At its best, it’s a chronicle of how a great team made a great show—and proof that the “behind every great man is a great woman” aphorism can work the other way around, too.