I love Lucy. You love Lucy. Let’s face it, we all love Lucy and the title of Lucille Ball’s first television series couldn’t have been more aptly named. Aaron Sorkin writes and directs a slice of Lucy and Desi Arnaz’s life amidst one of the most pivotal week’s in this couple’s history with “Being the Ricardos.” That week Lucy was named a communist. The fallout could have been the end of her, her marriage, countless employees of the show, and her future…but it wasn’t. And this is their story.
Sorkin takes us back to1953 as the “Red Scare” continued to plague Hollywood elites rendering many of the writers, directors, and actors without a job; black listed. Radio show host and gossip monger Walter Winchell made the announcement that Lucy was a Communist on a live broadcast on a Sunday night just before the beginning of Lucy (Nicole Kidman) and Desi’s (Javier Bardem) work week to create another episode of the sitcom that changed how people viewed and made TV shows.
Before we enter the tumultuous week which brings us behind the scenes to the hardened and serious business of making people laugh, Sorkin creates “interviews” with the movers and shakers of the time. Madelyn Pugh (Linda Lavin), a female screenwriter, recounts her memories of that week and Lucy’s impact upon the world. Intermittently, but with no predictable timing, we hear from the heads of companies and studios — all portrayed by actors — to give us a retrospective of that week and of Lucy. We are also privy to Lucy’s memories and visions which takes us into her thought processes. All of these aspects give us an intricately complete picture of her life, her history, and her future.
For fans of Lucy — and I am an avid one having grown up in the same area of gorgeous Chautauqua Lake, NY — we see a different side of this woman. She’s tough as nails and isn’t afraid to show it. She’s cutting and demanding. And she’s progressive in her thinking as obstacles, to her, are nothing more than things to be pushed aside. But most of all, she loves her husband and her work.
Learning about the making of this one week’s episode and the burden both Lucy and Desi carried as they attempted to pull out all the stops to put the Communism theory to rest once and for all, we are introduced to both critical and ancillary people within her life. Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) valiantly yet quite ineffectively attempts to reign Lucy in as she announces her pregnancy; a word and concept never before addressed on television. Within the comings and goings over the course of 5 days before performing and recording in front of a live television audience (Desi pioneered this concept), we get a glimpse into the turmoil of “Fred and Ethel” and the overall pragmatics of this foursome who entered 60 million homes every week.
The stress of the situation is palpable, but Lucy’s strength and tenacity shines through thanks to Kidman’s version. We see Lucy and Desi as a solid team, never to be shaken by the likes of Hoover or the shenanigans of the ensemble cast and crew. Bardem becomes Desi in mannerisms and charisma. He finds a way to demonstrate Desi’s intelligence and passion with sheer credibility. It’s a memorable performance that will certainly capture voters’ attention during the Awards season. With equal fervor is J.K. Simmons’ performance as the cranky curmudgeon William Frawley who felt that happy hour began at 10 am. Not for a minute did I think I wasn’t watching the real Frawley. And the antagonistic relationship between he and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) allows you to watch with awe how they found a way to make us all laugh.
Kidman is the lead and it’s a heavy burden to carry. Playing one of the most influential female comic actors and a woman who paved the way for other females in the industry isn’t an easy task, but Kidman, for the most part, adequately does so. Occasionally, her look is identical and even with her voice, but her dialect took me out of the character. Lucy lived briefly in NYC, but was raised in NY State and her dialect was wrong and took away her believability. Perhaps it was Kidman’s own Australian dialectical differences that she imbued, but it doesn’t work. We never forget that it’s Kidman playing the part of Ball.
Sorkin tackles a very complicated story and using flashbacks and memories he is able to tell a much more elaborate one. The unexpected “real time” interviews, however, is jarring and takes us out of the story. Had these interviews occurred on a predictable timeline, perhaps the stylistic choice of doing so would have had a different result.
I do love Lucy and while there are some flaws within the making of “Being the Ricardos,” the overall effect pays homage to this brilliant pioneer of television.
If you want more, be sure to listen to TCM’s “The Plot Thickens.”