Film & Television

‘Being the Ricardos’ Disappoints (But I’ll Always Love Lucy)

When it was announced that Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem would play Lucy and Ricky in Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos, the Internet had other ideas. “Lucille Ball was all about comedic, almost elastic, facial expressions,” tweeted one person. “And while Nicole Kidman is multi-talented and beautiful, she . . . well . . . can’t move her face.” Another (many others, actually) had a different actor in mind. “Seriously. Pick up the goddamn phone and call Debra Messing right now.” The powers that be (a.k.a. social media) definitely didn’t think Kidman was the right choice. In fact, fans were so disgruntled — and so vocal about it online — that Kidman considered backing out of the project. 

It turns out the naysayers were wrong and . . . well . . . right.

Kidman’s craft is on full display here. There is no question but that she’s a magnetic screen presence in total command of her voice, her body, even her emotions. But she’s Nicole Kidman first, Lucille Ball second. Bardem looks even less like Ricky than Nicole does Lucy, yet he somehow disappears into the part. Kidman never really gets there. Not in the way she did in The Hours (and I’m not just talking about her prosthetic nose). And, except for a couple of too-short scenes reenacted from I Love Lucy, she isn’t funny. Surprisingly, she isn’t funny at all. I never had the pleasure of meeting Lucille Ball (although I did work with Lucie Arnaz on a CBS afterschool special in 1979). But it seems to me that someone that funny onscreen would be at least a little funny in real life.

Granted, Sorkin, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed, is not depicting a particularly humorous time. In the course of the week at the center of the film, Lucy, Ricky, and the fate of their series are threatened by three converging crises. 

Hollywood gossip columnist Walter Winchell has just reported that Lucy is a communist. 

Confidential magazine has just reported that Ricky is cheating. 

And the Ricardos themselves are reporting that they are expecting a baby.

Ricky: Lucy, we got some ’splaining to do.

Lucy: Waaaaaaaaaaaahhh!

When you think about the tabloid stories that make headlines today, none of these reports seem to be television deal-breakers. But Ricky loved Lucy in 1952. The red scare was at its height and the industry’s witch hunt was going full throttle. The Ricardos were arguably America’s best-loved couple, and the audience wasn’t going to tolerate any womanizing on the part of the Cuban bandleader. And, finally, the word “pregnant” had never even been uttered on television. (It’s rather a miracle that little Ricky was conceived in the first place, since Lucy and Ricky famously slept in twin beds.)

Telling the Arnaz story through the lens of one highly pressurized week works well. Sorkin, no stranger to the television production process, provides an interesting and entertaining look at the inside workings of a 1950s series. The sets and costumes, by Ellen Brill and Susan Lyall, are marvelous and evoke the era with meticulous detail. The pressure to turn out another half-hour of live comedy — especially to Lucy’s exacting standards — is palpable.

Other choices don’t succeed as well. Unnecessary flashbacks dramatize Lucy and Ricky’s meeting and courtship. And a series of flash-forwards are used documentary-style so the couple’s colleagues can comment on them some time in the future. This employs the use of two actors for each; for example, I Love Lucy writer Madelyn Pugh is double- cast with Alia Shawkat in the 1950s role and Linda Lavin decades later. The effect is confusing if not jarring, and it breaks the tension that should be building on the Lucy set.

There are memorable scenes and fine performances well worth watching, though. J.K. Simmons does his usual sublime work as William Frawley, the veteran vaudevillian who portrayed the Ricardos’ neighbor Fred Mertz. He’s been around the show business block and serves as Lucy’s confidante and drinking buddy. There is believable antagonism between Frawley and his onscreen wife, Vivian Vance, played sympathetically by Nina Arianda.

One theme that rings true (although we’ve seen it before) is the challenge Lucy faced as a woman in charge in what was very much a man’s world. Kidman portrays the comedian as tough as nails and utterly sure of herself and her talent. The byproduct of this, unfortunately, is there can only be one queen bee. When Vance loses some weight, Lucy sends a writer to her dressing room with a generous plate of breakfast. “There are more women watching who look like you than look like me,” she tells her. The line is reminiscent of old commercials, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”

Being the Ricardos is a neat piece of filmmaking, but it didn’t make me feel I knew the couple any better than I had before. What did, however, was a fairly low-budget documentary made back in 1993 by their daughter, Lucie. Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie is a rich combination of family footage, personal memories, and real interviews with friends and old colleagues. Arnaz walks us through her parents’ challenging childhoods, including the Great Depression stateside for Lucy and a revolution in Cuba for Ricky. She explores their love affair and shares snippets of adoring letters they wrote to each other during World War II. As a companion to Sorkin’s film, or as standalone background, Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie is quick and fun and enlightening.

That said, neither movie can rival the sheer comedic genius of I Love Lucy itself. Seventy years later, classic bits still hold up. Like Lucy and Ethel on the chocolate factory assembly line. Or Lucy mirroring Harpo Marx. Or Lucy stomping grapes (which Kidman wondrously recreates in Being the Ricardos, giving a hint of how good she might have been had the movie been written or directed or acted a different way). And that’s a shame.

Kidman is often a great actress (and I’ll be the first to applaud some of the courageous roles she’s undertaken in recent years, like the abused wife in Big Little Lies), but she’s not an effortless comedian, and the film suffers for it. Of course, I realize that I may be in a minority when it comes to that opinion. Kidman has already won the Golden Globe and been nominated for a SAG Award. An Oscar nomination can’t be far behind. And her Lucy is good, don’t get me wrong.

But it’s not the Lucy who made so many millions love her.

Being the Ricardos and Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie are available to stream on Amazon.

6 seasons of I Love Lucy are available to stream on Hulu and Paramount+.

 

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