There will never be another Lucille Ball. Some might come close, but the legacy of Lucy is timeless. Her brand of physical comedy remains to this day the gold standard for television humor and the cross-generational appeal of I Love Lucy seems to have ensured that she will endure forever.
Behind the scenes, however, Lucy lived a life far less fairy tale than one might expect. True, she was the first queen of TV comedy and got the power to go with that, but her marriage to Desi Arnaz was one fraught with personal strife.
Being the Ricardos, Aaron Sorkin’s attempt to dissect the complicated life and marriage of Lucille Ball is about as reverent to its subject as its writer/director can get. Sorkin is the kind of writer that has never let the truth get in the way of a good story, instead choosing to portray his subjects in a way that’s kind of “spiritually” true more so than “actually” true.
And, let’s face it, he’s good at what he does. Sorkin has an indelible knack for teasing out reality from his characters and allowing them to live and breathe on their own. So it is with Being the Ricardos, a film that’s a part reverent exploration of Lucy’s character, a part seamless homage to Lucy, and part meditation on how Lucy helped usher in the age of television.
Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem star as Lucy and Desi during what the film bills as the tensest week of production. Lucy’s testimony regarding her appearance before the House Unamerican Activities Committee has leaked and the risk of her being labeled a communist has tensions on set at an all-time high. Making matters worse, a tabloid has reported that Desi is having an affair. And if all that wasn’t enough, Lucy and Desi have revealed to CBS that not only is Lucy pregnant but they intend to be the first show to depict pregnancy on TV, to this dismay of CBS executives. Can Lucy get survive this tsunami of news and still tape her show Friday? Will she even have a show to tape?
While all these things did happen in reality, the truth is that they didn’t occur during the same week. Sorkin has long played it fast and loose with timelines for his biopic movies, similar to how he and director Danny Boyle played it with his Steven Jobs biopic, Steve Jobs. Despite his approach to timelines, however, he does make every effort to ensure that the spirit of the subject is correct, and his script goes a long way towards seeing that through.
Kidman and Bardem, meanwhile, bring it home. Both actors give stunning performances in Being the Ricardos and they could easily both earn a nod from the Academy next year. Kidman, especially, transforms herself into not just Lucy but several different versions of Lucy. Sorkin’s vision has Kidman stepping into the role of Lucy Ricardo in several iconic scenes (including the famous grape-stomping scene) and Kidman knocks it out of the park with her take on the subject. But not only that, she manages to capture Lucille Ball the professional actress, Lucille Ball, the behind-the-scenes leader, and Lucille Ball the exhausted wife.
Kidman and Bardem’s performances are enhanced by genius turns from JK Simmons and Nina Arianda as William Frawley and Vivian Vance, either of whom could also easily be nominated in supporting performer categories. Combined with Sorkin’s strong script, the cast does an excellent job at bringing these characters back to life but also revealing who they were to each other.
While the film is good (and equal parts dramatic and hilarious), Sorkin uses a framing device of talking-head interviews that detracts from an otherwise great film. What’s more, these “interviews” are merely actors playing the writers and producers we’re meant to be hearing from. Intended to provide a documentary feel to the film, they instead serve only to slow down and distract from the narrative, and it’s difficult to understand why the scenes were even included.
All told, however, Being the Ricardos is a wonderful homage to an examination of the enduring legacy and lasting power of not just Lucille Ball but I Love Lucy. With its outstanding performances and whip-smart script, Sorkin has done everything short of resurrecting Lucy herself to ensure that his film is worthy of its subject matter and, for the most part, he succeeds wildly.
Being the Ricardos is now playing in theaters everywhere and premieres on Amazon Prime on December 21.