Anyone who has spent their life watching reruns of I Love Lucy may think they know Lucille Ball, her husband Desi Arnaz, and their relationship fairly well, but more than likely, only from the way they portrayed their television alter-egos.
As Aaron Sorkin did with Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and others, he has decided to tackle the myths behind the legends, and with Being the Ricardos, he does that by looking at a week in the production of the show, condensing a number of events into that one week in order to create heightened drama.
When we meet Desi (Javier Bardem) and Lucy (Nicole Kidman), they’re having problems in their marriage, something the tabloids have glommed onto. At the same time, radio personality Walter Winchell has made the allegation that Lucy is a member of the communist party, and they’re also having difficulties with the latest episode, which involves the Ricardos’ neighbors, Fred and Ethel Mertz, played by William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), splitting up with their friends trying to get them back together. Adding to that, Lucy is pregnant and Desi wants to make that a part of the show, something that probably won’t fly with either the sponsors or the censors. This is early television in the ‘50s, after all. Some of the problems come from the writers’ room where the show’s Exec. Producer Jess Openeheimer (Tony Hale) and the episode’s writers (Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy) also can’t seem to agree with the changes Lucy wants to make.
Being the Ricardos may be what you would come to expect from a master screenplay craftsman like Sorkin, but it’s also rather unexpected in terms of how much ground Sorkin covers, even when compared to something like The Social Network or Steve Jobs. (The fact that those latter two movies were based on fairly recent personalities from the tech world also allows Ricardos to offer quite its own counterpoint.) There’s no need to mention that Sorkin’s screenplay is exemplary, because he continues to be one of the best writers in Hollywood without question.
Maybe some of the decisions that can be attributed to Sorkin’s artistic license will be questioned like the film’s faux-doc format to have this story narrated by some of the show’s writers and producers in the present day looking back. Sorkin also uses flashbacks to set up the relationship between Lucy and Desi as well as showing the origins of I Love Lucy. Neither is particularly the best way of framing the story, yet it still works. Some might also take issue with the fact that Sorkin compiled a number of important events from the lives of Ball and Arnaz into a single week in the filming of an episode for their show. Maybe it’s not factually accurate, but that does work to cover the ground mentioned above.
The idea that Kidman or Bardem may not have been the right casting for Ball or Arnaz can immediately be tossed onto the bonfire of silliness that is social media these days. Some might feel that the actors’ lack of comedic chops makes them ill-suited to play the television comedy icons. In fact, Sorkin’s film focuses far more on the drama going on behind the scenes, and for that, you really can do no better than the two Oscar-winning actors leading the film.
It’s also nie impossible to overlook the similarly astounding performances by Oscar winner J.K. Simmons and stage veteran Nina Arianda as William Frawley and Vivian Vance, the Ricardos’ neighbors, who are constantly fighting off-camera as much as they do when cameras are rolling. Simmons is especially great as the “elder statesman” on set, always cracking jokes that are hiding the fact that he’s starting to feel his age. (The real Frawley died in 1966 shortly after an appearance on Ball’s The Lucy Show.) By the second season, Vance is also feeling like she’s being seen only as her character and wants to make herself feel prettier.
As much as Ricardos will mostly be about Sorkin’s script and the cast, none of it would work if the characters weren’t put into the proper environment, whether it’s recreating the soundstage where I Love Lucy was filmed or the clubs in which Arnaz continued to perform even while making it on television. The production design by Jon Hutman (Quiz Show) and that of Set Decorator Ellen Brill (American Horror Story) is on display in every scene, especially when they’re recreating, almost perfectly, some of the scenes from the I Love Lucy show. Many of those scenes are likely to raise the question, “Is that the real Lucille Ball on television from the ‘50s or something Sorkin created?” since it looks so damn close to the former.
Of course, the costumes by Susan Lyall are quite crucial to it all, as is normally the case with any sort of period piece, but more importantly, the makeup and hair-styling team, led by department heads Teresa Hill (hair) and Ana Lozano (makeup) which brings a lot to the performances by the actors to make them look like their real-life counterparts. The way the makeup differentiates between Lucy and Desi while filming on the show vs. in their real lives is subtle but effective.
For the cinematography, Sorkin graciously borrows David Fincher’s cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth to make all of the film’s environments just look stunning with a slight throwback to film noir in the scenes with Lucy and Desi by themselves. Similarly, one cannot stress enough the contribution of Sorkin’s Editor Alan Baumgarten, who received an Oscar nomination for last year’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, and how his editing maintains that rhythm and pace for which Sorkin’s known, but also not quite at as hectic pace as some might expect. Likewise, Trial Composer Daniel Pemberton has created another pitch-perfect score that does everything just right to bolster the words and performances without detracting from them.
While Being the Ricardos takes some time to find its footing as Sorkin sets up all of the different throughlines, by the last act, everything has been woven together quite beautifully, making it worth contending with some of the more problematic decisions made earlier in the film.
Whether or not you loved Lucy… or Desi… or have no idea what a huge contribution they had for everything on television that followed, Sorkin finds a compelling route into their lives and the difficulties they faced as they became America’s most beloved couple. Being the Ricardos is a touching tribute to a beloved duo that never glosses over the many hurdles they must have faced.
Being the Ricardos will get a release in select theaters this Friday, Dec. 10, and then will be streaming via Amazon Prime Video starting Dec. 21. All photos courtesy Amazon Studios; Photographer: Glen Wilson.