Making television is hard. Making good television is even harder. And the degree of difficulty in making television that will be considered classic for years and decades to come? Well, that’s something that The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin probably has some degree of familiarity with.
Sorkin brings that experience with him to his latest film Being The Ricardos, a look at one week in the life of mid-twentieth century cultural icons Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez, and the production of an episode of their classic sitcom I Love Lucy. Over the course of those five days, the pair work meticulously to make that week’s episode the best it can be while also dealing with the network’s and the sponsor’s concerns over Lucy’s pregnancy, a gossip report stating that she had been under investigation by the House Unamerican Activities Committee for possibly being a communist and another gossip report about Ricky being seen out on the town with another woman.
If all of that sounds like too eventful a week to be true, you would be correct. Lucy’s problems with HUAC would actually manifest themselves almost a year after the couple played out their pregnancy and the birth of Little Ricky on air, to the delight of millions. (The episode where Lucy gives birth, timed to air the same day as when Ball went into the hospital for a scheduled c-section, was watched on 71.7% of all televisions across the country, a number higher than those that were tuned to President Eisenhower’s inauguration the next day.) No one should be looking to this film, or any biopic for that matter, for strictly fact-based reporting.
Instead, Sorkin is giving us the sense of who this power couple were and the complex work and private life relationship they shared. They loved each other intensely. True, they often fought with each other, but they also fought as hard for each other. As a woman and an immigrant making their own, independent way in the business world of mid-century Hollywood, Lucy and Desi did indeed face numerous obstacles. The film can be forgiven for conflating some of those into a single time period if that helps us get a stronger portrait of the couple’s relationship dynamic, which it does.
When her casting was first announced, there was some criticism leveled toward the idea of Nicole Kidman playing the iconic Ball. Could she handle the comedic moments it was presumed that the film would have? Was she only being cast because she had red hair? These, and other objections, now seem silly in hindsight once Being The Ricardos is viewed. The comedy work is relatively small, but Kidman acquits herself well. While she might not completely embody some of Lucy’s classic physical routines – Who could,really? – she makes a close approximation and our own familiarity with such pieces of comedy as the “Stomping on grapes at an Italian winery” bit fill in the gaps.
Away from the TV cameras, Kidman’s Lucy is far from the ditzy housewife she portrayed for a half-hour a week for tens of millions of Americans’ enjoyment. She’s strong and demanding when she needs to be. She has to be for her to have gotten as far as she has. She is quick with a critique, but they are almost always insightful and meant to better the show. While somewhat slower with a compliment, but when they do come they are sincere and heartfelt. Sorkin has come under fire in the past over his treatment of his female characters, but here he is making the argument for Ball’s genius by putting her into his stock “smartest person in the room” position, and that lets her shine.
Much like on I Love Lucy, Desi is playing second fiddle to Lucy in this story. Javier Bardem does a great job playing a man who just wants to give his bride everything he can, except possibly marital fidelity. This is more of a matter of Bardem seemingly not getting as much screentime as Kidman due to Sorkin’s focus on Lucy. But in no way diminishes the idea that two weren’t equal partners, even if Desi needed to hear that from Lucy every now and then.
Sorkin frames the story as if it were being remembered by the writing staff of the show, with the three characters giving modern day interviews to the camera. It is a conceit that only half works. While it does allow for digressions from the main plot to fell in some backstory about how Desi and Lucy met or other pertinent information. The problem is none of those writers were present at those digressions or some of the other events depicted in the film, making them unreliable narrators. And that, unfortunately, undercuts the portrait of the two is trying to paint.