If Being the Ricardos were just a movie about the insidious evil of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Hollywood blacklist, it would be a bit of a yawn. But as the story of a marriage between two brilliant professionals, one of whom—the man, incidentally—often took a backseat to his more dazzling partner, it feels breezily modern. Being the Ricardos, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, focuses on one significant week in the life of Lucille Ball (played here by Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem). But it’s really a story about two people who, without knowing it, looked ahead to the future of men and women in America—a future of equality that’s still unfolding, but was, even so, largely unimaginable in the 1950s.
The hit show Ball and Arnaz made together, I Love Lucy, aired from 1951 to 1957, and was basically a half-hour receptacle for delightfully ludicrous plots: Arnaz’s Ricky was a famous bandleader; his wife, Ball’s Lucy, dreamed of being in show business and would try anything to break in, much to Ricky’s embarrassment. Their best friends, Fred and Ethel Mertz (played by Vivian Vance and William Frawley on the show, and rendered wonderfully here by Nina Arianda and J.K. Simmons), lived next door in their New York City apartment building. The comedy of I Love Lucy might look broad today, but watching carefully reveals genius at work: Ball, with her vibrant, mobile features and her complete willingness to fill a space with her sly, kooky physicality, is rightly lauded as one of the great comic actresses of her (or just about any) generation. But the Cuban-born Arnaz was the show’s secret weapon, the handsome straight man—himself a beautiful caricature, with bold, tell-all eyebrows and a chilled-martini-glass smile—whose own delicately calibrated timing reflected and magnified everything that was funny about his wife.
With Being the Ricardos, Sorkin strives to capture the show’s behind-the-scenes mechanisms and tensions—including the way Frawley and Vance grated on each other’s nerves, sometimes almost explosively, as well as Ball’s casually cruel efforts to keep Vance, a close friend in real life, from losing too much weight, all for the sake of the show. (The clear subtext was that Lucy’s character should be the thin one, while Ethel needed to be the “heavier” bestie, the one who looked more like most American women.) But Sorkin being Sorkin, he can’t help building a civics lesson around this story: The movie takes place during a single week, just after hugely popular radio host Walter Winchell outed Ball for her Communist affiliation, despite the fact that she had just testified to the HUAC and been cleared. The accusation could have killed not just the show but Ball’s career. Being the Ricardos shows how Arnaz took quick, shrewd action and saved the day.
There’s nothing wrong, exactly, with using that framework to give a script some momentum. It’s simply that the dynamic between Arnaz and Ball—and between Ball and the show’s other stars—is so fascinating by itself that the heavily intoned excoriation of the villainous HUAC feels superfluous. Sorkin details, with light brushstrokes, the nature of the often turbulent Arnaz-Ball relationship, including flashbacks to their early days as a couple: He’d work nights as a nightclub entertainer, she’d have to be up early to be on set for whatever movie she might be working on. They’d meet for a few minutes in the Hollywood Hills, between their work shifts. They decided to make a show together so they could actually see one another.
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Being the Ricardos shows us how these shows took shape, beginning with early-in-the-week table readings, during which Ball would visualize each gag and fiddle with it, to everyone’s annoyance, until she achieved comic perfection. (One thread follows her obsessive tweaking of one scene, involving the setting of the Ricardos’ dinner table, that ends up lasting about 20 seconds on-screen—and shows how sharp Ball’s instincts were. That’s the intricacy of comedy for you.) Kidman makes a fine Lucille Ball in many ways: we get a sense of her quicksilver intelligence, obvious in the way she’ll stop a conversation midtrack to express doubt about a certain line of dialogue. At one point she spins out ideas for a sequence—one of the show’s most famous—in which Lucy, having traveled to Italy, tries her hand at squishing winemaking grapes with her feet. The crackerjack detail she comes up with is Lucy’s loss of an earring in the sodden purple mess.
But if Ball is buzzing with ideas, it’s Arnaz the businessman who keeps the ship running straight and true: In real life, he was the architect behind the duo’s production company, Desilu, taking steps to ensure the enterprise continued to make money long after the show’s run ended. In Being the Ricardos, we see how the so-called wearing of the pants was a point of pride for him—but also ways in which he couldn’t help feeling overshadowed by his extraordinary wife. Kidman is good at capturing Ball’s smarts; but she’s a bit too cool and composed to suggest the fiery charisma that burned there too—and as gorgeous as she is, her features don’t come close Ball’s gonzo beauty. Bardem’s performance is the surprise here, not because he isn’t a terrific actor, but because his features are all wrong. His nose is little too broad, his mouth a bit too rubbery. Arnaz was fleet, with a dancer’s frame, while Bardem is solid and earthy.
But then, that’s how actors surprise you. Bardem is terrific as Arnaz, finding complexities in the man that we might not have known were there. When he deflects Lucy’s accusations of philandering, we can’t be sure if he’s lying or not—but his pillowy charm somehow makes every word believable. And if Lucy and Ricky seemed average, in a 1950s way, on TV, Being the Ricardos shows exactly how un-average the performers who played them were. At one point, Ball reveals to the show’s producers that she’s pregnant with the couple’s second child. The men begin scheming ways to keep shooting while hiding her growing belly. Ball is adamant: she wants the public to see what a pregnant Lucy Ricardo looks like, because the physical representation of childbearing is nothing to be ashamed of.
The decision to “allow” Lucy to be pregnant on national television was a huge one. But what’s remarkable about the decision-making scene, as Sorkin frames it, is the formidable front that Arnaz builds in defense of his wife. And there’s a subtle irony in the fact that, if Latin men might often be stereotyped as macho or controlling, Arnaz stood with Ball before a group of white advertising and television executives and shamed them into acknowledging the reality of an experience that many of their own wives had gone through.
Though Arnaz and Ball divorced in 1960, their business empire marched on. Being the Ricardos slips in and out of the shadows of this strong and fascinating marriage and business partnership, addressing petty jealousies and big ones, small battles and quietly waged wars. At its best, it’s a chronicle of how a great team made a great show—and proof that the “behind every great man is a great woman” aphorism can work the other way around, too.