Ask 100 strangers to list the top 5 shows in the history of television and you are guaranteed to see “I Love Lucy” 100 times. “I Love Lucy” is one of the most acclaimed shows of all time and defines the golden age of broadcast television. It is as central to Americana as baseball, hotdogs, and the 4th of July. Aaron Sorkin’s latest biopic-drama “Being the Ricardos” capture’s this unique mosaic of American culture and history in the 1950’s as he takes the audience on a dramatic journey through one tumultuous week in the shooting of an episode of “I Love Lucy”. Sorkin does not disappoint in providing a perfect present to audiences before the holidays, wrapped nicely in a bow as red as Lucille Ball’s hair. “Being the Ricardos” brings the perfect blend, as only Sorkin can provide, of dramatic screenwriting, skillful acting, and enduring history that captivates audiences. This is complemented by the incredible performance of Nicole Kidman as the quintessential Lucille Ball. Kidman performs a feat, few actors can land and does so with the highest grace and right amount of cunning. This film is a masterclass in all that makes us turn to film and television – emotion, escape, wonder, and intrigue. The film is likely to appeal to older audiences, but given the infamy of its story, it will captivate audiences young and old alike.
Sorkin’s biopic outlines a turbulent period in American politics that was entrenching itself into Hollywood. With McCarthyism in full swing, careers and livelihoods were at stake, with no one immune from its leather-gloved grip on the throat of American society. In the film, our drama sets out almost immediately when it comes to light that a Hollywood newspaper has details on a well-known actress that registered with the communist party. Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) does not deny this allegation and in fact bold embraces it, as her grandfather was a devout worker who believed in helping laborers. This is uniquely contrasted in the golden age of Hollywood that Ball is herself, married to a Cuban, Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), who narrowly escaped the violent rise of communism in his native Santiago.
Sorkin takes the audience through a history lesson, both in American politics and entertainment, in the span of 125 minutes, portrayed through 6 daring days for Ball and Arnaz. We see the tension and how the show, including its actors and staff are all in the balance in this critical week. However, as said famously by Tim Curry in Tim Burton’s classic “Clue”, “Communism was a red-herring” as the real drama that is slowly warming like water in a kettle, is the release of another article in a publication that same week, that suggests Arnaz was having extra-marital relations with women, to the emotional heartbreak of Ball. Through the week we see additional drama unfold as it is revealed that Ball is pregnant and that her and Desi wish to continue production on “I Love Lucy” and be the first show in the history of television to show pregnancy on screen, much to the disdain of Jess Oppenheimer (John Rubinstein), the CBS show runner.
At first, Sorkin’s presentation seems a little rocky. The story of that harrowing week is recounted on screen through the memories of the writers and producers of the show, presumably many years after the show had gone off air. It is unclear when or why these individuals are being interviewed, and this does come off confusing at times, as it feels very much like a biography made for A&E. Sorkin is trying hard to add an extra bit of spice to a story that doesn’t need it. This complicates the storyline. I can appreciate his effort, but when you are telling a story, within a story, within another story, this plot device serves only to confuse the audience and detracts from an otherwise amazing screenplay.
However, the highest accolades in this film go to Nicole Kidman, portraying acclaimed actress, comedian, and entertainer Lucille Ball, at the precipice of Ball’s emergence as a cultural icon. This feat is only made more complex that Lucille Ball’s (Nicole Kidman) character plays a character on television so enshrined to Ball’s heart and desire (themes “Being the Ricardos” explores perfectly) that Ball is hardly indistinguishable from Lucy Ricardo. Nicole Kidman earns the highest praise in portraying this complex and unique dynamic so well. Sure – Lucy Ricardo seems like a very platonic character, that could easily be replicated. However, Lucille Ball is much more than that. Sorkin explores this dynamic very delicately, and intricately. We see that Ball is cunning, vicious, loving, and daring. We explore the complexities of such a successful woman, at a time, when pregnancy is considered too taboo for television – much less the idea that couples share a bed. Kidman was perfectly cast for this role and captured the uniqueness that made Ball into the success she was, in a way, that no one else can.
Navigating back to the story line, we are told early on that Ball desires only one thing – a home. This ambition arouses curiosity in Arnaz, that cultivates the relationship and careers that Ball and Arnaz would go on to create together. It is so easy to get lost in the characters they play, but Kidman’s portrayal of Ball’s ambition of just having a home, is so relatable to most every viewer. Arguably, this is what made “I Love Lucy” one of the most popular shows of all time. Its connection to the audience was at such a deep, emotional level, that the audience likely did not even notice that the show is a metaphor for their own lives. Deeper still, is that in the film, Ball is tenacious and a master of comedy. She runs afoul of Oppenheimer and struggles with writing that presents Lucy Ricardo to be dim-witted. Ball doesn’t want cheap laughs and Ball boldly tells Oppenheimer, if the audience doesn’t believe in the story, then their won’t be a show. In one dramatic scene, Ball exclaims, even if for the sake of convenience the plot is setup to suggest that Lucy won’t recognize her own husband’s cuban accent, the audience isn’t stupid. If they [the audience] realize this is a cheap setup for laughs, then the laughter will quit flowing. Kidman hits ever beat of this complexity and drills into the truth of who really was Lucille Ball.
What makes the above scene so powerful, is that the entire show is Ball’s metaphor / vision for her own life. In one scene Ball breaks down, despite her best attempts, and admits, this scene must be perfect for her marriage. This scene must hit every beat perfectly, so that people will laugh, audiences will tune in, and the show will continue in perpetuity. If the show goes on, Ball can escape to the show and have the home she desires with the husband she is madly in love with. This is to the chagrin of the show runners and Fred and Ethel Mertz, but brings the story full circle, as Sorkin starts to wrap his bow for the audience.
But we aren’t finished yet. Remember how Ball thinks it prudent that Lucy be believable, and not dim-witted? Ball’s internal struggle with her character is finally reconciled when she acknowledges that she is not dim-witted. She knows that Desi cheated on her and she cuts this point home, with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel in the final scene. But she decides, that Lucy, if dim-witted, could erase the transgressions of Arnaz. The home and husband she so desperately desires can exist, if she can claim ignorance. If she can pretend that she would not recognize her husbands voice, or that 8 other men frequent her character’s apartment regularly. It is hard not to imagine that Ball recognized 8 other men could easily be 8 other women. The parallels are so rampant and so brilliantly brought to screen by Sorkin and Kidman in this epic conclusion.
Nearly 70 years ago, Lucille Ball changed the landscape of Hollywood, Television, and the Entertainment industry forever. The first appearance of the Ricardos living in their 1 bedroom apartment in New York on television was perhaps as equally monumental to television history as Armstrong stepping on the moon. Sorkin’s latest film captures this quintessential time in American culture, in a brilliant manner that draws upon multiple layers of complex metaphors and parallels to American life, that the audience is sent on an emotional and enthralling dramatic journey back in time. One could hardly hear a pin drop in the auditorium when Bardem takes to the stage in the studio to tell his audience members, 70 years ago, that his wife was not a communist. More profoundly, one could faintly hear Lucille Ball’s heartbeat as she paused for 20 seconds when Arnaz famously exclaimed “Lucy, I’m home”. Lucille Ball in that moment decided what home she wanted. Nicole Kidman transcended the silver screen and brought that moment to the audience, and it is a moment one will not soon forget. “Being the Ricardos” did not disappoint and only further cements Amazon Studios as a major contender in the future of motion picture entertainment.
My rating: 4.5 reels out of 5