Being the Ricardos

Director: Aaron Sorkin
Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin
Stars: Nicole Kidman (Lucille Ball), Javier Bardem (Desi Arnaz), Tony Hale (Jess Oppenheimer), Alia Shawkat (Madelyn Pugh), Jake Lacy (Bob Carroll), Nina Arianda (Vivian Vance), J.K. Simmons (William Frawley), John Rubinstein (Older Jess Oppenheimer), Linda Lavin (Older Madelyn Pugh), Ronny Cox (Older Bob Carroll), Dana Lyn Baron (Miss Rosen)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2021
Country: U.S.
Being the Ricardos
Being the Ricardos

I will be the first to admit that I often—not always, but often—struggle with films that depict recent history and well-known media figures. In such films, the actors, no matter how good their performances, are too frequently hamstrung into mimicry because we are so familiar with the looks, manner of speaking, and movements of the real-life people they are portraying. It is so much easier to engage fully with a film featuring historical figures who do not have a huge media footprint because we don’t have those images already lodged in our heads. Thus, when Nicole Kidman won an Oscar for playing Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002), her performance worked because we could lose ourselves in it, rather than constantly comparing (consciously or otherwise) her appearance and mannerisms with those of the historical Woolf, whose physical existence was documented in photographs and some sound recordings, but little else.

Now we have Kidman in Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos playing Lucille Ball, one of the most famous Hollywood comediennes of the mid-20th century and probably the most famous television personality of her era. Virtually everyone has seen or is at least familiar with I Love Lucy, the phenomenal and groundbreaking 1950s sitcom that Ball produced and starred in alongside her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz. Thus, because we have a strong sense of what Ball and Arnaz looked and sounded like, Kidman and Javier Bardem (who plays Desi) are already at a disadvantage, as they have to both capture the specific aspects of this famous couple’s mannerisms while also making them compelling dramatic characters. It is a difficult feat to pull off, and Kidman and Bardem come close, but not close enough, and as a result Being the Ricardos never quite takes off.

This is territory that Sorkin knows well, having mined recent American history in virtually all of his screenplays, including Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), The Social Network (2010), Moneyball (2011), Steve Jobs (2015), and The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), the last of which he also directed. With the exception of Steve Jobs, all of those films featured historical figures who were either not particularly well known or were obscure enough for most to have forgotten the details of what they looked and sounded like (Mark Zuckerberg was not nearly as well covered in 2010 when Jesse Eisenberg embodied him in The Social Network). Sorkin, like Oliver Stone, is clearly fascinated by the ramifications of 20th-century American history and how it can be shaped into a compelling cinematic form, and at its best, Being the Ricardos captures the complexities of producing a hit television show at the dawn of the medium, the dangerous socio-political currents of McCarthyism and attendant social attitudes regarding race and gender, and the difficulties of maintaining a celebrity marriage (having spent so many years writing and producing episodic television about what happens “behind the scenes,” including The West Wing, Sports Night, and The Newsroom, it is not surprising that Sorkin would be drawn to the backstage drama of one such a famous TV show).

Most of Being the Ricardos takes place over a single week and dramatizes the sometimes vexed interactions among Ball and Arnaz, whose marriage is struggling under the weight of Ball’s suspicion that Arnaz is cheating on her, and their producer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) and head writers Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll (Jake Lacy). They are preparing the episode “Fred and Ethel Fight,” and Ball is fixated on a seemingly innocuous opening moment when Arnaz sneaks up beind her while she is setting the table and covers her eyes. Ball rightly points out that it makes no sense for Lucy to respond the way she does, and the days she spends coming up with alternatives much to the consternation of those around her speaks to both her dedication to her craft and the difficulties she encounters being a rare woman in power in the media (a whole subplot involves her trying to minimize the effect of that power by getting Oppenheimer to given Arnaz an executive producer credit on the show to salve his bruised ego). They must also grapple with various on-set tensions, including the fact that William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), who play the Ricardos’ neighbors and friends Fred and Ethel, pretty much loathe each other (the funny-tense dialogue between Simmons and Arianda is one of the film’s best assets).

There are two other major pressures hanging over Ball and Arnaz: First, the fact that Ball is pregnant and she and Arnaz want her pregnancy written into the program, an idea that is met with revulsion by both the network executives and representatives of the show’s sponsor, Philip Morris. Second is the revelation, via gossip mogul Walter Winchell’s radio program, that in 1936 a young Lucille Ball had checked the box for “communist” on her voter registration card—not because was a genuine, fire-breathing Red, but because her grandfather, who was instrumental in raising her, was a committed socialist and proponent of workers’ rights and she was trying to support him.

Woven throughout the week are both flashbacks to critical moments in Ball and Arnaz’s interlocking personal and professional lives (their meeting on the set of 1940’s Too Many Girls, Ball sitting down with CBS executives and demanding that Arnaz be allowed to play her husband on the show despite the scandal a “mixed race” marriage might generate on network television). These flashbacks help to dramatize the uniqueness of Ball and Arnaz’s life both on screen and off and give their characters more depth and nuance (although Bardem is relegated to a supporting role, as virtually all of his scenes with Ball make her the central character and point of reference). What does not work nearly as well is Sorkin’s decision to pepper the film with faux talking head interviews with Oppenheimer, Carroll, and Pugh several decades later (played, respectively, by John Rubinstein, Ronny Cox, and Linda Lavin). These fictionalized interviews help to fill in some narrative gaps and provide insight into both the working realities of life on a television set and what might have been motivating Ball and Arnaz at any given moment, but they are too self-consciously abstracted from the rest of the film to work. Virtually all of the information that is conveyed in these “interviews” is either already dramatized or could be via dialogue and interaction among the characters. As is, they feel both perfunctory and intrusive.

And this brings us back to Kidman and Bardem, who, for all intents and purposes, acquit themselves well as Ball and Arnaz despite the inherent distractions posed by our memories of their real-life counterparts (Bardem is at a distinct disadvantage here because, not only does he not look anything like Arnaz, but he is a full 16 years older than Arnaz was in 1953). They bring life and depth to the characters and their struggles, although again it is Kidman’s Ball who really stands out. Arnaz is largely in the background, and his moments exist only in relation to what Ball is going through with her fears of having her career destroyed by communist accusations and her marriage destroyed by Arnaz’s womanizing. While the title Being the Ricardos emphasizes them together, this is really the Lucy show.

Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (2.5)

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