BEING THE RICARDOS
Review By John Fraim
(Thanks to my good friend and “Wing Man” Jim Arter)
Being the Ricardos is a 2021 American biographical drama film written and directed by Aaron Sorkin about the relationship between I Love Lucy stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
Hayley Fitzpatrick with ABC News writes it offers a “revealing glimpse of the couple’s complex romantic and professional relationship, the film takes audiences into the writers’ room, onto the soundstage and behind closed doors with Ball and Arnaz during one critical production week of their groundbreaking sitcom I Love Lucy.” This sums up pretty well the general scene-scape of the film.
Yet is it the brilliance of writer/director Aaron Sorkin to focus on a particular week in Lucy and Desi’s hectic life. Desi, as President of the new Desilu Studios and performing on I Love Lucy with his wife. But also headlining a fantastic engagement at the famous Ciro’s on Sunset Boulevard. Their marriage had the fiery passion a marriage to a Cuban possesses. But it also made Lucy suspicious of Desi and his time away from their home to play cards with friends in Del Mar, California. His band gigs would often end at 4:00 am in the morning, just the time that Lucy was getting up to be at the Desilu Studios by 5:00 am.
The film begins with news in the tabloids that Desi has been fooling around with other women. There is a photo of him on the cover of the tabloid with another woman. Lucy gives him hell for this when he comes home one night after being away for more than a day. But Desi says the photo is an old one taken at a corporate event that was very legitimate almost six months previously. They make up. And make love.
It’s September 6, 1953. It was the evening that radio personality and gossip columnist Walter Winchell dropped a blind item on his show: What top redheaded television comedian has been confronted with her membership in the Communist Party? The nation was stunned to hear it was Lucille Ball. The next day, the newspapers feature huge headlines about Lucy being a member of the communist party. The I Love Lucy Show had been going for about two years and it was now watched by 60 million each week. In addition, Lucy announces that she is pregnant to the shows writers and producers and there is questions whether the show can go on with Lucy pregnant. The show’s major sponsor – Philip Morris – is considering pulling out of its sponsorship with Lucy’s new baby on the way.
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Against this general background, Sorkin lands his drama into the week following the Walter Winchell broadcast on the radio followed by huge headlines in the newspapers. LUCY IS A MEMBER OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY they say in “Hindenburg” sized headlines Lucy comments. There is the additional problems with Desi in the tabloids for foling around with women and Lucy’s pregnancy. But Sorkin takes creative freedom here as all of these events did not really happen in one week. For example, Ball’s second child, Desi Jr. was born in January 1953 and the Winchell “Commie” broadcast was aired in September 1953. And, the Confidential story on Desi didn’t appear until January 1955.
The drama pulls all the above events into one week though and centers his story around the various days of the week during the production of one episode of the I Love Lucy Show. Watched by 60 million and forcing American department hours to change their hours when the I Love Lucy Show was on television. Water consumption and other funny things seemed to happen during that magic time of the I Love Lucy Show. Sorkin frames off the various days appropriately with titles stating what formal point in writing the show until performed on Friday. Here, Sorkin moves in on a critically important part of television production called Table Reads. In framing much of his drama in the context of Table Reads, Sorkin allows his audience to penetrate the key part in the creation of television programs. There is nothing more compelling in producing television shows than these Table Reads before actual production where challenges and problems and opportunities are discussed and argued and worked out for the live show.
This is a creative time in production of the show when all the creatives play-off the lead characters in creating a script that is entrancing 60 million Americans each week. Sorkin uses these three key writers for I Love Lucy to look back on their years with the show and reflect on this. One of the writers, a woman among two men, reflects on this week writing the show as she sits with a pool in the background. A man reflects somewhere in a bar with light streaming in from the background like something close to religious. Another man reflects in some ambiguous place. All three, reflections of the three writers of the show that we see in the film.
I Love Lucy was not only a star vehicle for Lucille Ball, but also a potential means for her to salvage her marriage to Arnaz. Their relationship had become badly strained, in part because of their hectic performing schedules, which often kept them apart, but mostly due to Desi’s attraction to other women. One can say Desi is a jerk of a husband. Yet, he represents exactly what a Cuban man might present to an American woman in a marriage.
Sorkin is picking territory he knows well. And, trying to communicate the feeling of being in this territory of television production to his audience. This is one of the subliminal and beautiful aspects of the film: Sorkin let’s all of us in on the creative production of the film which is really much associated with the creative production of one of the most famous TV shows in the history of that new medium called television.
It is within this territory that the stars of the show – Lucy and Dezi – mingle with the writers of the show. In effect, Sorkin is telling us the story from the perspective of the three writers of the show in September of 1953. Right after all the news of Desi and his affairs breaks. As well as stories that Lucy is a member of the Communist Party.
Letting stars of a performance mingle with the writers of the performance is really what Sorkin does in this brilliant revisioning of a section of the lives of Lucy and Desi. Yet Sorkin quickly ventures outside this present time structure to pull back moments of the past for the week story that that Lucy as a communist story about her breaks out all over the country. He moves to a time she was on the radio. There is the other time when she first met Ricky on the set of a terrible movie he was in and their first dating. He promising to teach her the Rumba. He gave that line to all the girls, Lucy says.
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Performers deal with performers in a certain way. But there is a powerful relationship going on between performers and no other performers. Rather, their writers. This is in many ways a film about actors and their writers. Lucy and Desi had brilliant writers for the show and Sorkin lets his audience see things from a totally different perspective. The perspective of being privy to the creative team in the Table Reads. It offers Sorkin’s audience a new and fresh perspective on history’s most successful television show. From the perspective of the creative device in the production of television shows called a Table Read.
It is a huge story to tell. The story of Lucy and Desi. Even Sorkin needs the assistance of three narrative perspectives (the three writers on the show) for the narrated week in the history of the production of an episode of the I Love Lucyshow. Sorkin mixes fiction with reality here by employing three actors to represent the three writers of the show as the original ones have passed away. They are interviewed a number of times in the movie with their names under their onscreen interviews. The writer used the most is Madelyn Pugh who passed away in 2011 at the age of 90. It’s interesting that Sorkin attempts to give the film a semi-documentary feeling by employing people who were around at the time to recall memories of the particular week in production of I Love Lucy. However, the writers are not the real writers from the period of 1953 as they have all passed away. Sorkin uses actors in their 60s and 70s to represent these real writers and producers of the show in 1953. They are old enough for the audience to suspect that they might be real if the audience doesn’t know the dates involved.
But, in the end, it is a brilliant new way to tell the biography of a couple that was almost beyond the telling of biographies. Sorkin’s answer is to focus, focus and focus. In this massive biography, attempting to conquer all of it is insane. Much better, one simply attacks and attempts mastery over one simple aspect of the “grand” mountain. Here, our greatest television (and dramatic) writer today lets us into the creative process in the creation of television’s most successful show.
The method of moving chunks of time around while still centering on the liner events of the various Table Reads is a way that Sorkin gives us quick maps of where we are in the story. We get one week of the events in the lives of Lucy and Desi. But we are given pieces of the context of their relationship.
The result is an assemblage of a powerful biographical tribute to a legendary couple of Lucy and Desi. The three people who proport to be the three writers are played well by actors and actresses. The real writers of the I Love Lucy show are long gone. The three are filmed beautifully and their remembrances fit well into the entire story being created here.
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At the end of Being the Ricardos, when the episode they have been working on during the week Lucy has been accused of being a Communist, Desi calls the reporters to the set to prove his wife’s innocence. He uses his power and contacted J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director. In front of a studio audience and the reporters, Hoover confirms that the FBI didn’t have any evidence to believe that Lucille Ball was a Communist. As Hoover cleared Lucy’s name publicly, the audience cheered in happiness. Their star was safe in Hollywood.
It is so fitting that the ending scene of the film puts us into a slow crane up from the set of I Love Lucy, through the skylights until we could see the glimmer of the little patch of light that was the show. Lucy says at one time that on the set was the only place she really felt at home. After all, Desi was always here, on the set. Something in real life he was not good at. That is, being at home. But the zoom up of the camera through the roof of the studio with a long crane shot, makes this little piece of Lucy’s happiness seem smaller and smaller as darkness engulfs the light of the I Love Lucy Show far below.
The film ends with this image but I prefer to see the image of a dot of light from the show in a vast surrounding darkness closing in from all sides on Lucy. This symbolizes an extension of the real crane shot at the end of the film. The darkness closing in on all sides despite the fact that Desi just had the head of the FBI tell the nation Lucy was not a communist. Lucy has made it through a difficult week but her marriage was still a challenge and the telelvision program the only way that Lucy has found to keep the marriage together and to have a type of home. Even if it was a set at her studio in Hollywood. A comment Lucy makes earlier in the film makes much sense regarding all of this. She says the show is the only real home she has. She has always wanted a home.
I can see the ending crane shot going higher and higher into the night sky until the Lucy show below is just like a dot of light in the darkness. And an entire nation stopped from their activities to watch the life that comes from this dot of light in the night. The dot of light seems symbolic to me of that light called the Ghost Light in the theater. It is a light placed on an empty stage when the theater is closed for the night. A light to scare away ghosts that always haunt a stage set.
Kidman is superb in this film. Certainly, the vehicle she always was capable of and always needed. Both her incredible capabilities are on display in the best performance of her career. The role allows her to play a wide spectrum of emotions. The personality of Lucy could slid back and forth and sometimes crash through the guardrails. There is much paradox in her character and much against the popular mythology of Lucy. Kidman proves well up to the task. The greatest role in her career which demands a powerful trainwreck of bad news for Lucy, all the events poured into one week.
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In all, a new cinematic approach to biography in Sorkin’s revisioning of an approach to telling the story of Lucy and Desi. Picking one week. Bringing in actors to play the real writers and producers of the show. Bringing in events in real life outside the week of the story to create more drama. Able to drill down to the dramatics of this week. A particular week – part real and part fiction – as the place to center the story around.
Not the final approach to their story. Rather, one approach. There will never be a final approach or definition of their story. But Sorkin’s film seems to understand this and offer us something special in the never-ending story of Hollywood’s most iconic couple. As we noted, the show’s major sponsor – Philip Morris – considered withdrawing its sponsorship of the show with Lucy’s new baby on the way. However, they should have realized that Lucy and Desi’s “babies” had already been delivered. Of course it was their two children, Lucie and Desi, both already born by the time of the actual event of Lucy being accused of being a communist on September 6, 1953.
But I think there was a third “baby” created from their marriage called the I Love Lucy Show. The two of them had created this together and it was born way before Philip Morris wanted to pull out its sponsorship of the show with Lucy pregnant. The fact is, the nation had been watching this “baby” of Lucy and Desi for two years before Lucy was pregnant (in the film) with Desi, Jr.
Their baby was of course called the I Love Lucy Show which aired from 1951 to 1957. It was the most successful show in the history of television. Percentage wise, it holds the record for the highest percentage of total American households viewing a television program. In 1960, Lucy filed for divorce from Desi. His after hours escapades were simply too much for her. It was a marriage that had lasted for twenty years from 1940 to 1960. We’re given one week in this twenty-year marriage.
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Our greatest telelvision writer Aaron Sorkin does a good job of using the week in their lives to suggest a temptuous, fiery, relationship. Yet, could it be anything different? Lucy married a Cuban. She married someone she loved very much but someone who would always view her differently than most American men viewed their wives. He didn’t see that going out with prostitutes should cause Lucy that much concern. He truly loved her. It was simply the mythology of of Cuban men at this time. This was what Lucy was confronting. Not Desi but Cuban men in general.
But with Desi, perhaps the most successful Cuban in Hollywood of all time, she was confronting something more than the average Cuban male. She was confronting an iconic addition to the LA night scene of the 1940s and 50s. The performances of his band at Ciro’s was the talk of the town in the 40s and 50s. The music of Cuba was introduced to America largely through the music of bandleader Desi Arnaz. This life gets buried in the focus on the married life of Lucy and Desi.
Yet both had lives outside the twenty years of their marriage. To really write about the life of Lucy (or Desi) it seems to me that you have to write about the before and after marriage to each other in their lives. Not surprisingly, American fans of I Love Lucy seem to not care much for this period of time. They are much more interested in seeing Lucy and Desi attached at the hip to each other. Few spend time to put their lives into the context of before and after their marriage (from 1940-1960). Bringing in outside biogaphical information of their lives before and after their marriage (before 1940 and after 1960) makes much sense.
Sorkin provides a brief flash of this time period before 1940 in a few scenes of the film. There is the first meeting of the two when Lucy confronts Desi on the set of the B movie he is making. There is his introduction to Rumba for Lucy. But these flashbacks are only seen in brief scenes as Sorkin quickly returns his audience to “story time” of his film via the device of onscreen text of particular days before the live episode of the show. The live episode has tremendous drama. Desi tells the nation Lucy is not a communist. But right before the show is aired, Lucy finds a hankerchef with another woman’s make-up on it in Desi’s jacket pocket. Lucy’s life continues onward with a husband who is constantly unfaithful to her.
What is to be done? For Lucy, perhaps it was in keeping the Ghost Light of the show on at all times to ward away the darkness. Lucy battled this darkness through her rough marriage to Desi. She gave her gift of light and laughter to the entire nation once a week on the I Love Lucy show. They only saw this light and not the darkness around it.