Being the Ricardos, the latest film from wordsmith-turned-filmmaker Aaron Sorkin, wastes no time reminding us that long before our so-called New Golden Age of Television, the 1950’s sitcom, I Love Lucy, had, at its peak, sixty million viewers. A quick Google search reveals close to three-quarters of all American households with television sets tuned in for one of the show’s most-watched episodes. Being the Ricardos takes a look behind the scenes of I Love Lucy as the husband & wife team of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball navigate a critical workweek during which multiple issues threaten their insanely popular show, professional relationships, and overly scrutinized marriage.
The first serious threat comes from a newspaper claiming Lucille Ball’s hair isn’t the only thing red – something not of minor consequence in the age of McCarthyism. The second is in the form of a tabloid photograph catching Arnaz cozying up to an attractive young woman. And, as the saying goes, baby makes three after Ball announces her pregnancy, much to the dismay of network execs and tobacco sponsors, particularly because, rather than aborting or hiding the pregnancy, Ball and Arnaz want to incorporate the impending delivery into their show’s narrative. From a contemporary perspective, it’s hard to understand how that could be a literal showstopper, but back in the day, even hinting at the possibility of intercourse within the artificially chaste world of TV was considered taboo.
Most films based on true events should be taken with a grain of salt. Being the Ricardos is no exception. While nearly everything depicted did transpire, they were spread out over years, not five days. But the compressed time frame is what gives the story its dramatic heft as well as insights into the production process, with chapter titles ranging from “Monday: Table Read” to “Friday: Show Night.” Interspersed throughout are entertaining dramatizations of Ball and Arnaz’s pre-I Love Lucy careers, including their sexually charged meet-cute, and former associates looking back decades later, ruminating on what one of them refers to as “a scary week!”
The impeccable comic timing of J.K. Simmons, combined with his deep voice and Elmer Fudd facial features, make his rendition of William Frawley a natural scene-stealer. Nicole Kidman doesn’t look or sound like Lucille Ball, but her performance is so commanding it hardly matters. The same could be said of Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz, but on an order of magnitude greater, as he reveals a whole new repertoire of previously-untapped talents; his portrayal of the Cuban nightclub performer – dancing, singing, seducing the audience – mesmerizes with the effortless flamboyance of a born entertainer.
Whether it’s the founder of Facebook, the Chicago Seven, or network television stars, Sorkin’s métier is crafting stories involving highly creative original thinkers, exploring pet themes such as the necessity of teamwork and the importance of loyalty, and taking a moralistic stance against hubris and betrayal. Ultimately, though, as with all of Sorkin’s work, the main appeal of Being the Ricardos is how his script, like a glass bottom boat, allows us to see beneath the surface of a rarefied world; his carefully penned movers and shakers give us the vicarious thrill of spending a couple of hours alongside impossibly quick-witted characters who always know what to say, especially when the stakes are at their highest.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski