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Being the Ricardos ••••

Movie Greg Scott
Being the Ricardos


Being the Ricardos

Being the Ricardos

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, I love Lucy. There, I said it. Please don’t tell my wife.

Well, it looks like you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do. Let’s recap:

We meet the writers and producers of I Love Lucy decades after the show enjoyed its unprecedented success in the 1950s. They are reminiscing about the night that it was disclosed that Lucy was communist. It’s the height of McCarthyism and so this is a big deal. Apparently, when Lucy was a young woman, she checked the box that she was a commie in honor of her grandfather who looked out for workers’ rights. Now she and husband Desi Arnaz are meeting with the network and the sponsors to figure out the damage control.

Also, Lucy is pregnant with her and Desi’s first child. It’s a bit of a problem since 1950s sensibilities don’t allow for pregnant women on TV. Or, until then, the pregnancy was hidden by a sack of groceries or a kitchen counter. Worse still, the word “pregnant” is taboo. Other problems include a director who doesn’t understand Lucy’s brand of physical comedy, and her conflicts with co-star Vivian Vance. This is going to be one hectic week.

Greg, much of Being the Ricardos pivots on the cast of I Love Lucy rehearsing an episode where the Mertz’s are arguing with each other. Lucy is clashing with the director, Donald Glass, over the details of the dinner scene – for example, whether they should be seated at the dinner table and whether Lucy should be cutting flowers for the centerpiece. There is tension over seeming minutia.

“Something fundamental is wrong, I’ll figure out what,” says Lucy. This scene in the movie – and the TV series within the movie – represents a microcosm of Lucy’s personality along with her life ambitions and dreams. She knows what she wants and will do whatever it takes, including micro-managing her environment, to build a proper “home” – a place where she and Ricky are together, a place with flowers on the dinner table, flowers cut exactly the “right” way.

Desi Arnaz doesn’t get it and tells her that he is baffled by her obsession with the details of the scene, especially the part about getting the flowers just right. Lucy is determined to make this dinner scene “work”, to build a home right there on the set of the number one TV show in America. But no matter what she does, forces beyond her control conspire to make this home-building impossible. She may be the smartest person in the room, but if others don’t share her vision, she’ll have to make compromises to the detriment of achieving her dream – which is exactly what happens in this particular episode and throughout her entire life.

It’s scenes like this in Being the Ricardos that make this film very much worth watching. Lucille Ball was a once-in-a-generation talent operating in a patriarchal world that constantly placed limits on her creative genius. But more importantly, it placed limits on her dream of simply being married and having a family. Desi Arnaz was a man of his generation – a hugely successful man who felt threatened by Lucy’s success and believed he was entitled to his own life with other women outside of his marriage to Lucy.

Lucille Ball was a force of nature, always the smartest person in the room, and always doomed to butt up against the hyper-patriarchal world of the 1950s. She took risks, made sacrifices, and blazed new trails. For these reasons, she’s a great hero, one of my favorites in fact.

Sorkin’s script is very ambitious. I’d argue, this was a densely packed story. All the events in Being the Ricardos actually happened, but not within the span of a week. Sorkin took liberties with the facts and crafted a story that dramatizes the challenges Lucille Ball faced, and how she and Desi Arnaz solved them.

I’m a fan of Lucy’s, and I’ve been to her hometown where the National Comedy Center and Lucile Ball museum are located. All the events in Sorkin’s story are well-known to fans. There was nothing new here. But Sorkin’s script and direction are very tight. I’m especially pleased with Sorkin’s direction. I did not enjoy his directorial debut (see our review of Molly’s Game). Whatever he’s been doing since 2017 to improve his directing chops definitely paid off here.

The well-known events in the story include Lucy’s Communist associations, her feuds with Vivian Vance, William Frawley’s drinking and laissez faire approach to learning his lines, Desi’s womanizing, the pregnancy, the writer’s tensions, the three-camera technique, and many more. In fact, there is so little new information in this near-documentary, that I don’t fully understand why it was made.

The ending where Ball embraces Vance and writer Madelyn Davis seems contrived. Davis exclaims that she doesn’t want Lucy to look “infantilized” as it diminishes all women. Lucy says “I care about what’s funny. I don’t see myself caring about a woman’s perspective from a new generation. I care about you.” It seems unnatural as if Sorkin is speaking through his characters – which is one of his trademarks.

There aren’t many actors better than Nicole Kidman, and her portrayal of Lucille Ball is uncanny. She nailed many of Lucy’s mannerisms and speech patterns. However, there were too many “on-the-nose” moments where Lucy is fine-tuning a solution and Kidman puts on her “thinking cap.” It’s an unnaturally intense face. I’m only guessing, but that may be Sorkin influencing Kidman.

Javier Bardem doesn’t resemble Desi Arnaz, but he sounds like him. The dynamic between Lucy and Desi is well choreographed here, and Bardem delivers. JK Simmons can do no wrong, but he appears younger than Willam Frawly and a lot thinner. I’m surprised they didn’t give him a fat suit to wear. Lucy’s obsession with surrounding herself with less-attractive women is dramatized in the interactions with Nina Arianda’s performance as Vivian Vance. The cast delivers in spades and I felt like I was on the set of “I Love Lucy.”

It takes a lot of “balls” to step into the shoes of the legend who is Lucille Ball. Sorkin’s script and directing deliver. Kidman’s performance is impeccable. And we all got to take a trip to 1950’s television. It was a fun romp, but I still don’t know why we needed this project – there’s nothing new here. I give “Being the Ricardos” 4 out of 5 Reels and Lucy, well I love Lucy, so she gets 5 Heroes out of 5.

Greg, I was also going to mention the awkwardness of inserting every issue the series faced within the few days that transpired in this story. There is Ethel’s resentment about maintaining a particular weight, her problem with her character being married to Fred, Lucy’s dealings with the communism issue, Desi’s philandering, Desi’s insecurity about playing second fiddle to Lucy, the TV pregnancy issue, and more. It felt very contrived and could have been better handled by extending the timeline of the story over a few years rather than a few days.

But Greg I do feel that this story did need to be told. For one thing, Lucille Ball was an extraordinary pioneer in the television industry and deserves tremendous credit and recognition for breaking gender barriers on screen and in the boardroom. Not everyone knows the details of her personal and professional life, especially now that we are 70 years removed from the airing of her groundbreaking series. New generations of fans needed a modern portrayal of her life and times.

Lucy’s heroism was unprecedented, and we can see that she possessed all eight of the “Great Eight Traits” of heroes – she was smart, strong, charismatic, reliable, caring, resilient, selfless, and inspiring. She took risks and made sacrifices. She was even willing to lose her career in admitting that she deliberately checked the “communism” box in honor of her grandfather. Desi’s tragic personal experience with Cuban communists stopped her from self-destructing.

This film definitely deserves a rating of 4 out of 5 Reels. The full five Reels could have been achieved with a screenplay that captured a longer, more realistic timeline for proper development of the many issues confronting Lucy and the series. In terms of the hero rating, Lucille Ball most certainly deserves all 5 hero points out of 5.

Movie Greg Scott
Being the Ricardos