I Love Lucy is still one of the most influential shows in television history, it’s a shame Being the Ricardos fails to understand this. Despite the groundbreaking woman at the centre of this biopic, writer-director Aaron Sorkin fails to catch what made her so iconic.
Being the Ricardos takes a look at a week in the life of Lucille Ball, her on and off-screen husband Desi Arnaz, and the team behind I Love Lucy. From the table read on Monday through to the Friday taping of the show, it details a tumultuous point of their personal life and career. We also sporadically flashback to the couple met and how she went from a bit-part actor to one of the best influential women in television history.
Despite fantastic performances from Nicole Kidman as Ball, J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda as co-stars William Frawley and Vivian Vance—it’s hard to really understand what Sorkin is trying to tell us. Spanish-born Javier Bardem as Cuban Desi Arnaz is a weak link in the cast, his accent, and mannerisms are nothing like the former bandleader.
In this period of Ball and Arnaz’ life, a tabloid drags up old evidence of Ball’s connection with the Communist Party. Despite being cleared years earlier, the papers won’t let go of her alleged pinko loyalties. The whole team is worried she is going to be pulled of fair, with sponsors and the network spooked. Ball also suspects her husband is having an affair when he’s supposed to be out playing cards with the boys. Anyone with half a knowledge of this iconic couple will know how it ends.
A bizarre narrative choice is the weaving of documentary-style interviews with older versions of the show producers and writers. John Rubinstein, Linda Lavin, and Ronny Cox play the older versions of Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, and Jake Lacy’s characters, but you will be forgiven for not keeping up with who is who. These talking heads essentially recap what we have just seen played out on screen.
It doesn’t appear like anyone involved in making this biopic was a fan of Ball or her comedy. Scenes are recreated with a careless monotonous and flatness, taking any fun out of the sitcom. Whilst it shows the whip smartness of Ball and her attention to detail, it doesn’t give an indication of what it was that made her comedy so special. She argues with writers about out-of-character dialogue, fights with producers and sticks up for her actors.
It doesn’t help that Sorkin is obsessed with deconstructing jokes and slapstick humour. The West Wing creator doesn’t appear to understand the legend nor the way she created television. Whilst the behind-the-scenes quarrelling is genuinely funny, anything that is an homage to I Love Lucy sadly is not.
The moments where they recreate scenes from the show won’t make anyone who has never seen it intrigued seek it out. In fact, Being the Ricardos makes I Love Lucy look unfunny, not helped by Kidman’s lack of facial expressions. Whilst she is an excellent Lucille Ball, she is not a very convincing Lucy Ricardo. She can do the voice, but the whacky mannerisms come across cringe-worthy, not comedic.
When her pregnancy is revealed, the network is disgusted. Pregnant women weren’t shown on TV because that meant they had sex (this was in an era where married couples slept in separate beds on television shows). The producers are horrified when the couple reveal they want it written into the show, that sort of thing just isn’t done. Ball refused to be carrying washing baskets in front of her growing bump and hiding behind chairs.
Lucille Ball was one of the first women to portray pregnancy on television, the catch was they couldn’t use that word, instead of replacing it with ‘expectant’ or ‘with child’. All of this pop culture history is skirted over unfairly. The topic is mentioned and soon dropped, doing the fight for accurate portrayal of womanhood and motherhood a disservice.
Supporting pair (in both the show and this biopic) William Frawley (J. K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), who play the Ricardos’ neighbours, Fred and Ethel Mertz. Vance always played second fiddle to Ball, yet she had her own issues. The actress struggled with her weight, not helped by the constant jokes about her basic looks and dumpy physique. William has torn between his dislike of communists and his belief that witch hunts were no good. The pair’s banter is a highlight, they understand each other yet bicker distastefully like a real-life married couple.
It often feels like Being the Ricardos is less a biopic of Lucille and Desi and more of a mouthpiece for Sorkin to complain about the creative process. There is the clear line that your personal life must pay for the creative process, something there is very little evidence within Ball’s real life. Being the Ricardos is more about Sorkin’s process and less to do with I Love Lucy’s.
Being the Ricardos is an enjoyably safe biopic that doesn’t gloss over the troubled marriage and the struggles of being a woman in 1950s Hollywood, yet it never really lets you know how influential Ball was. Audience members with no prior knowledge of the star will find nothing gained. Whilst the cast, especially Kidman, does good work, they can’t escape Sorkin’s obsession with structure and his lack of creativity as a director.
Being the Ricardos is streaming on Prime Video now.
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy