Take a minute and think about the people in charge of a television show watched and adored by millions every week. They bring laughter and joy into people’s homes with every episode, and there’s an attention to detail in the crafting of each episode that results in some of the most iconic moments in all of comedy. Being the Ricardos, the latest work from writer/director Aaron Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7), imagines all of those things for the “I Love Lucy” show, its creators Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), and the group of writers, producers and others involved in keeping the show running week after week for CBS. And yes, watching a behind-the-scenes profile of the making of a great episode of television can be interesting and even dramatic, but Sorkin further challenges his audience by wondering what work was like for this team attempting to put together an episode of “I Love Lucy” during arguably the worst week of Ball’s and Arnaz’s life up to that point.
I have no idea if this perfect storm of events actually did happen during the same week, and frankly, I don’t care. But I do know these were all things that the married show-runners did deal with early in the run of the series, and they likely all blend together in the mind. As the film begins, a gossip paper has run a story about Desi getting a little too friendly with another woman on a weekend boat excursion with friends. The photo used in the piece is six months old, so Lucy is mostly at peace that this particular story isn’t true. She also reveals to the network that she is pregnant and wants to work the pregnancy into the show, rather than hide behind baskets of laundry and bulky clothes until the season is done. They could have made an exceedingly interesting movie just about this now-famous breakthrough in television, in my humble opinion.
But the true threat to the future of the show is that in a blind item on Walter Winchell’s popular radio show, he effectively accuses Ball of being a communist. She is not, but years earlier, to honor someone very close to her, she did check a box on a form indicating as much. More than anything else in the early 1950s, this is what worries CBS (represented in the film by a small team of executives, led by Clark Gregg) and the show’s sponsor the most.
Being the Ricardos is about this one critical week in the show’s early history, and it uses these incidents as a way to weave through the history of Lucy and Desi’s professional and personal history, and how they used each other’s talent and strength to boost their profile and become the reigning king and queen of television for most of the decade. But Sorkin, having gotten his start in the world as a writer, can’t resist the temptation to dive deep into the writers room of “I Love Lucy” to watch how an episode and an entire season was crafted. Tony Hale plays show executive producer Jess Oppenheimer, working with chief writers Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll (Jake Lacy), each vying for credit for individual jokes and episode ideas like characters in their own sitcom.
“I Love Lucy” would only be half a show without neighbors Fred (William Frawley, played to slightly drunk perfection by J.K. Simmons) and Ethel (Vivian Vance, played by Nina Arianda, who is an absolute highlight of the entire film, playing the wounded Vance as a gifted actor trying to understand what it is about her looks that makes the world simply accept that the much younger Ethel would ever fall for Fred). Admittedly, the nuts and bolts look at a show being built is the best material here, but that doesn’t make the Red Scare, personal scandal and pregnancy storylines any less interesting. In many ways, the film comes down to whether Lucy can accept that she and Desi work better and have an elevated chance at succeeding as a team than individually, and so she may be forced to overlook his dalliances, if they are genuine. The film is filled with these heartbreaking choices, made all the more so by having them juxtaposed with moments from their courtship, when they couldn’t get enough of each other or keep their clothes on when they were in the same room. His overnight schedule as a nightclub performer and touring musician didn’t quite line up with her daytime movie-making work, but they were so in love, they made it work.
Being the Ricardos features a strange framing device, that of three older actors (Linda Lavin, Ronny Cox and John Rubinstein) playing Pugh, Carroll and Oppenheimer in more recent times and being interviewed by I don’t know who, presumably for a bit more insight into specific moments. But the commentary isn’t used enough to be particularly enlightening, while it’s used just enough to be an obnoxious distraction when it does pop up. When one of these interviews popped up, I literally found myself thinking “Oh yeah, they’re doing this. Why?” I still don’t have an answer for you; it’s not enough to ruin the film, but it does lessen the proceedings somewhat.
All of that being said, what shines through the most are the performances. Kidman’s decision not to use prosthetic makeup (like Jessica Chastain did in The Eyes of Tammy Faye) and go just with traditional makeup and hair was a solid decision, especially when the bulk of her Lucille Ball impression is in her dead-on voice choices. She actually uses two voices—Lucy Ricardo’s slightly abrasive cackle and Ball’s normal speaking voice, which is capable of far more than getting laughs. Bardem’s Arnaz has more energy and complexity than I would have imagined, and he sold me on his portrayal completely. More importantly, when the two are together, they sell the complicated dynamic of their personal and professional lives together. The perils of any marriage that they face are compounded by always being in the public eye, and this would appear to be at the heart of their troubles.
The drama and tension in Being the Ricardos is palpable; the peek behind the making of the show is fascinating; and the interpersonal web is sometimes devastating, sometimes inspiring. Aside from questioning some of the storytelling devices and structure of the film, most of what’s here works beautifully and got to me in ways I wasn’t anticipating.
The film is now playing theatrically and will begin streaming on Amazon Prime Video on December 21.
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