‘Being the Ricardos’ Grants Lucille Ball the Silver Screen Legacy That Should Have Been Hers
When news got out that Nicole Kidman was given the role of Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos, internet trolls weren’t just expressing dismay, they were out for blood. True, to the outside eye, Kidman seems all kinds of wrong to play the greatest physical comedienne this country has ever seen (and is ever likely to see). She doesn’t look much like Ball. She’s never been known for her comedy chops. And her voice is simply not in the same register — it doesn’t even seem to be in the same universe.
Yet now that Aaron Sorkin’s film is out there for the world to see, a lot of people will be eating a huge plate of crow with a heaping side dish of ‘fuck you.’ Whatever is wrong with Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos — and some critics are having a field day with the compression of events into its one-week time span — has nothing to do with the performances.
Sorkin, perhaps sensitive to all the hand-wringing over his cast, doesn’t show us Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) and Lucille Ball at first. We hear them having an argument over a Confidential article about Desi’s suspected infidelities, “Desi’s Wild Night Out,” which he undermines by pointing out that the article’s accompanying photo was taken at an event Lucy attended with him. Then we hear them start to make out with a TV broadcast in the background. Just as the Ricardos are getting busy on the couch, they overhear Walter Winchell’s broadcast about one of the greatest female comedy stars being a registered Communist.
And that’s when we first see our stars: popping up off the couch, disheveled, incredulous. The voices — not exact replicas of the comedy legends, but resonant with their timbres and intonations — are enough for us to suspend disbelief. Within 15 minutes, Kidman surpasses what could have been a mere impersonation of Lucille Ball, and transforms into her. Then again, she’s playing Lucille Ball, the actress; not Lucy Ricardo, the most-loved, most-watched character from sitcom television’s I Love Lucy.
Detractors of Sorkin will have a field day with his script, the patented snappy rhythms and verbal gymnastics that can often impress and grate with equal measure. Yet his high-octane wordplay and screwball bona fides work organically with the pressure cooker stresses of putting on a weekly TV show — especially when the stars are fighting for their livelihoods in the wake of our country’s one and only true witch hunt headed up by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Throw on top of that the inopportune pregnancy of CBS’s biggest asset and her ongoing suspicion about her husband’s dalliances and Sorkin is in heavy plotting heaven.
“Beyond the accusation of communism, there were other things that really interested me,” Sorkin has said, “like the fact that Lucille Ball was nothing like Lucy Ricardo, and she looked nothing like Lucy Ricardo. She’s kind of like Charlie Chaplin in that way. When most people think of Charlie Chaplin, they think of the Little Tramp, but Chaplin doesn’t look anything like Little Tramp. And when most people think of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, they’re thinking of Lucy and Ricky. But Lucille Ball was more of a Rita Hayworth, Jessica Rabbit-looking actress. And the road that she took to I Love Lucy was an interesting one. The road that Desi took to I Love Lucy was an interesting one.”
In Being the Ricardos, it’s also a wildly entertaining one. All four of the I Love Lucy actors — Ball and Arnaz as Lucy and Ricky, William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) as Fred and Ethel Mertz — have their individual moments, though Simmons is such a sly, gifted character actor I could have watched his cantankerous — and, ultimately, lovable — Frawley for two hours and been satisfied.
Beyond the main cast, the writers, showrunner and assistants on the I Love Lucy set, as well as the network heads and advertising suits, are all well played (Alia Shawkat is a fantastic foil as Madelyn Pugh, one of the show’s writers). It’s a very busy movie, with an ensemble that is always in motion, yet at its core it’s a beautifully calibrated portrait of a working marriage, and it never loses sight of its main attractions.
Bardem has the cadence of Desi Arnaz’s speech down. It’s impossible not to light up when he finally gets to sing a snippet of Desi’s signature song, “Babalu,” though he’s more compact than Arnaz and, while a handsome man in his own right, not nearly the lady-killer Desi Arnaz was in his prime. The movie sets the record straight on his creative contributions to the show (and television sitcoms in general). And whatever his failings as a husband, he recognizes the untapped talent in the B-movie actress he meets, and falls in love with, on the set of Too Many Girls.
Yet Being the Ricardos is Kidman’s film, and, by extension, Lucille Ball’s as well. Lucille Ball never got to have the screen career that should have been hers by the birthright of her talent, but Kidman has, and does. She not only shows us the gears of this comedic icon at work as Lucy Ricardo, she exposes the brilliant, determined, haunted, contradictory and restless spirit of a woman in the midst of becoming a trailblazer for the ages.