Of all the “reconsiderations” that this fall’s glorious crop of big screen biographies has imposed long-held preconceptions, none more alters our view of its subjects than “Being the Ricardos,” Aaron Sorkin’s revival of the “I Love Lucy” of myth and upending of the picture many still carry of its combative, married stars.
It’s a brisk and snappy recreation of one hellish early 1950s week when scandal, “Unamerican” politics and sponsorship worries might have ended that insanely-popular program, just a couple of years into its culture-changing run.
Sorkin and Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman take us through Lucille Ball’s on-set perfectionism about blocking, logic and timing of the physical comedy that made her a legend, and her fears that her dashing, younger Cuban-American co-star and husband, Desi Arnaz (Oscar winner Javier Bardem) was cheating on her.
Sorkin and Bardem illuminate the open secret that Arnaz was the power behind the queen, a savvy businessman, his wife’s biggest booster and her fiercest defender, called on to help her fight off the revelation that she was once “a card-carrying communist.”
“Back then, it wasn’t considered any worse than being a Republican” she might complain. But back then, conservatives feared communists rather than cozying up to Russia, not that anybody misses Sorkin’s point or doubts that this very dry line could have crossed Ball’s lips.
And a stellar supporting cast headed by Oscar winner J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda (TV’s “Goliath”) as the battling on-and-off-the-set actors playing the neighbors, Fred and Ethel Mertz, along with Tony Hale as the long-suffering writer/executive producer of the show and Alia Shawkat as the sassy/funny writer who still feared offending “the boss” (Lucy), get across the idea that a very small and elite corps was responsible for turning whatever CBS was putting on the air funny.
Linda Lavin plays Shawkat’s Madelyn Pugh (Davis) as that writer much older, remembering that show and “that week.” Sorkin’s framing device is the time-honored phony documentary, with survivors of the production of the series and CBS-TV back then played by Lavin, Ronny Cox and others, recount the series, the crises of Lucy’s communist ties and Desi’s skirt-chasing and their bosses, the stars, who were “either tearing each other’s heads off or tearing each other’s clothes off.”
Flashbacks show us both that one fraught week, from table reads through Friday night performance when “I Love Lucy” was filmed (not “taped” as one character says), straight through, in front of a studio audience. Other flashbacks show us how the brassy “Queen of the B” movies Ball met and bowled over the band leader Arnaz, and a string of pivotal moments in their lives and careers that made them TV superstars, just when it looked like Hollywood was done with them.
Sorkin’s famed, endlessly-quotable dialogue, delivered in talking-over-one-another crosstalk flurries, was meant for this material, the melodramatic behind-the-scenes lives of very funny, clever and biting show folk.
“Lucy” co-stars William Frawley and Vivian Vance (Simmons and Arianda) got all their mutual loathing — OK, most of it — out of their systems at table reads of the scripts.
“Is she talking to me?” “Are you DRUNK?” “It’s 10 o’clock in the MORNING…Of course I am!”
Ball, a funny woman boosted by her future husband’s pinpointing her great gift, as “kinetically gifted,” scares everybody, never more so than when she’s cracking a joke in the deadliest deadpan in show business.
“I’m hazing you, Don,” she tells a new director (Christopher Denham) at a rehearsal. “It’s just my way of saying…I have no confidence in you.”
But when the chips are down, the fractious TV “family” circles the wagons amid the panic and stares down the network (Clark Gregg, of course) and cigarette company sponsors over the REAL issue.
“You can’t have a PREGNANT woman on television!”
It takes longer to buy into Kidman’s Ball than it does Bardem’s Desi, despite the fact that like Ball she’s a great screen beauty and Bardem more ruggedly handsome than pop idol pretty, like Arnaz. Her performance — voice, posture, tamped-down temper and “gag” perfecting master craftswoman who “sees” the finished scenes and comic bits, and their fixable flaws, in black and white — is so brilliant that she makes Lucy stomping on grapes hilarious all over again.
Ball was funny “in her bones,” as they say. Every line barbed, every zinger perfectly-timed and absolutely intentional. Frawley takes an embattled Lucy out for a morning drink to buck her up at his favorite semi-seedy across-the-street bar.
“What’re you having?”
“I’ll take a tetanus shot!”
But Kidman’s turn is mostly a technician’s take on this supposedly singularly chilling star, infamous for her temper, ego and mistreatment of her inferiors.
Bardem’s Desi is lived-in, a performance. He sings, he dances and his Desi improvs his way out of accusations about his infidelity, “manages” his wife’s “commie” problem and drops hints about the reasons he and his politically-connected family had to leave Cuba decades before Castro’s revolution.
Sorkin keeps this compressed history on the move for the most part, although some of the idylls and reflections slow the picture’s sprint to a saunter.
The tsunami of smart banter is backed by a smoky drums and bass jazz score and filmed in the dim lighting of soundstages, the dramatic spotlit pools of darkness of Ciro’s nightclub, underlit homelife and office-scenes and ever-raining nighttime exteriors (in Southern California, no less).
Sorkin’s achievement rivals the reinvention of Richard Williams, father-promoter of the Williams sisters in “King Richard.” We knew Ball was smart-playing-dumb and demanding and awful to “the hired help,” with tales of her being banned from airlines (only some of them true) and the like. Sorkin and Kidman her Lucy “motivation,” and a softer, support-her-cast-and-crew side.
Anyone who’s read much about this couple, that show and their impact knows Arnaz and their shared Desilu Studios perfected the three-camera sitcom, that they produced some of the most popular shows of the era and as a final bow before selling out, got this little series called “Star Trek” on the air. Bardem and Sorkin give Desi a share of the spotlight, seriously human flaws and even a chivalrous side.
However much you know about these people and this subject, Sorkin shines a light in dark or unjustly-ignored corners of their epic story. And he makes obvious the strain and burden of “Being the Ricardos” into a film that’s witty and bittersweet, a biopic that like “Spencer” and “King Richard” forces us to take another look at public figures we think we know and consider them anew.
Rating: R for language
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Javier Barden, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Linda Lavin and Alia Shawkat.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Aaron Sorkin. An Amazon Studios release.
Running time: 2:12