During the Golden Age of Television, a half-hour domestic comedy titled, I Love Lucy, was one of America’s most popular television shows. A record-breaking number of viewers tuned in to watch the hilarious antics of America’s funniest and most beloved TV couple, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, each week; however, the perfect marriage of the Ricardos was anything but behind the scenes. In his new film, Being the Ricardos, writer-director Aaron Sorkin frames his screenplay around one critical production week that risks ending careers but also sees the marriage of its leads falling through the cracks. Tensions are high at Desilu Productions as personal accusations and a political smear come to light, while the couple also adds fuel to the fire by daring to challenge cultural taboos. In this behind-the-scenes look at the filming of one of the greatest and most influential sitcoms in history, Sorkin captures a legendary couple’s relationship, on and off the soundstage, in all its complexities. A love letter to two of Hollywood’s most celebrated creatives, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz attempt to stay united as their relationship and trust with both the audience and each other is threatened.
Being the Ricardos begins with the fitting sound of laughter. But that laughter quickly fades and is replaced by commentary from the executive producer and writers of I Love Lucy. In documentary-style, talking-head interviews with actors playing Jess Oppenheimer (John Rubinstein), Bob Carroll (Ronny Cox), and Madelyn Pugh (Linda Lavin) speak of the show, but specifically, one “scary week” of filming. “Everyone almost lost their jobs,” one writer explains, and “Lucy and Desi almost lost their lives.” It may seem dramatic, but the witch hunt of the red scare was no joke, and their redheaded star has been accused of being a communist.
The film’s introduction has a welcomed brisk pace as we bounce from one interview subject to another, and then cut to Lucy (Nicole Kidman) and Desi (Javier Bardem) having a screaming match offscreen that captures the incendiary mix of their personalities and attraction. Then the film shifts to a tense week of table reads and rehearsals. There’s a risk their live-audience tapping on Friday may not happen, but they must act like it’s just a normal week – their careers depend on it. During the table read, Sorkin makes the perfect decision to introduce black and white sequences to show a comedy genius at work, providing a fascinating look at Lucy’s creative process. While reading a script or being presented with ideas from her team of writers, she runs the scenes in her head, revealing a demanding perfectionist. This allows Kidman to play with the character of Lucy Ricardo in reenactments of scenes from “Lucy’s Italian Movie” and “Lucy Tells the Truth.”
Sorkin doesn’t stick to a strict timeline in these moments, including episodes yet to be filmed or from a previous season, like the planning of the groundbreaking episode, “Lucy Is Enceinte,” in which Lucy announces to Ricky that she’s pregnant, allowing the actress to parallel her real-life pregnancy on the show. Discussing this episode, in particular, is a great sidebar to highlight how ahead of its time the show was and how ambitious Lucy and Desi were. Not only a treat for fans, but the reenactment of episodes also balances the anxiousness of the week with the exceptional comedy of the series.
On top of the investigation into her politics, another story plaguing Lucy in the headlines are rumors of her husband’s infidelities. Desi was always a charming and handsome ladies’ man, as shown in Bardem’s performance as the film goes back in time to when they first met. Sorkin intersperses the story with flashbacks to provide the audience with a glimpse at the couple’s history; their whirlwind courtship, their marriage, career setbacks, and how different dreams for the pair ultimately led to the creation of their beloved sitcom. While familiar biopic beats help to understand Lucy and Desi as a couple and as individuals, the combination of this and documentary-style talking heads feel like an interruption, breaking the flow of the story and the bubbling tension as the week nears its end.
One of the worries for fans was how Kidman would be able to portray such a legendary star, as early images suggested it wouldn’t be a very transformative take. For the most part, that’s true. There are times where the audience may feel like they’re just watching Kidman in a red wig, but she’s able to switch from Lucy the actress to Lucy the character with subtlety. People tend to forget that Lucille Ball was nothing like Lucy Ricardo, and Kidman makes that switch with her voice and the way she carries herself. The Lucy Ricardo voice is there perfectly, as is the physical comedy, making her performance more believable as the beloved character than the actress herself. As an aging star in Hollywood, it’s fun to see Kidman tackle the subject with fervor while giving off a “this ain’t my first time at the rodeo” attitude towards being the only (and funniest) woman in the room. Sorkin also doesn’t shy away from the fact that Lucy was a bit of an asshole, which only adds to the compelling layers that differentiate the actress from her TV persona.
As Desi, Bardem captures the charismatic bandleader’s personality and energy. He surprises with his singing voice and can play Desi as both the multi-talented showman and determined businessman who, alongside his wife, continued pushing boundaries throughout the show’s seasons. The obvious weakness here is that, unlike Desi, Bardem isn’t Cuban, so having to convey Desi’s trauma from the Cuban Revolution and having to flee his homeland doesn’t carry the emotional weight it would with different casting. Making up the other key members of I Love Lucy are Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance and J.K. Simmons as William Frawley. Just as beloved as the Ricardos, Fred and Ethel Mertz got their likeability through portraying a bickering, older married couple who still sticks together through thick and in. But a surprise to many was that Bill and Vivian disliked each other immensely. They got under each other’s skin, but that just shows how good of actors they were. Arianda and Simmons don’t hold off on the vocal sparring, and they’re the best cast of the bunch. Simmons as Bill is hilarious, capturing his grumpy old man persona and sarcasm but also revealing a much softer side. As Vivian, Arianda is ballsy, unafraid to call out Lucy’s unfairness. Sorkin takes time to pen how galling of a role Ethel really was to play, and the surprising amount of friction that forms between her and Lucy because of it – but it’s magical to imagine these best friends on screen again.
While its hiccups won’t see Being the Ricardos listed among Sorkin’s best, his deft hand, Jon Hutman’s detailed set recreations, and Susan Lyall’s period costume design, successfully transport the audience back to television’s heyday and the soundstage of one of the time’s best shows. I Love Lucy was unprecedented, providing its audience with stories that stuck with them, but what was going on behind the scenes was equally as engaging. The show was to Lucy a creation of the perfect home and normal family life. It’s a fantasy that was saved with emotional applause, but the same couldn’t be said for reality.