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Being the Ricardos

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Javier patiently waits for Nicole’s face to unfreeze

Synopsis: 1950’s TV stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz have a rough week at work. (Streaming on Amazon Prime.)

Some little-known facts about 1950’s America: Babies were delivered by storks… Americans didn’t marry other Americans unless their accents matched… A person could lose their livelihood if people thought they were a “Commie.” Okay, the first two were probably not true, but the last item is factual.

Being the Ricardos shines a spotlight on Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, a married showbiz couple whose tv comedy program, I Love Lucy, was a big hit in the 1950’s. Writer-director Aaron Sorkin does his best to turn up the drama on personal and professional challenges faced by the couple. He also does his best to cram in as many words as possible into each minute of film.

There are a lot of spinning plates in this production. Sorkin takes the liberty of dumping three potential scandals into the same week. There are cheating allegations (Desi’s a womanizer), Lucy’s pregnancy (the network wants to hide her pregnancy) and a Big Red Scare, wherein Lucy is accused of being a communist (a voter ID card pegged her as a Communist).  That last charge could make for a lot of laughs in an episode where Lucy tries to retrieve the voter registration card in question.

But we won’t just be staying in one week in 1952–no, we will travel back to 1940 when Lucy and Desi meet in California. He was a band leader busy with shows and she was getting regular work acting in B-movies. They were both in their twenties when they eloped later that year. The actors who play Lucy and Desi (Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem) are both in their fifties, so lots of soft lighting and what looks like a dusting of flour on the camera lens are employed to erase the years.

Nicole Kidman is slathered with ‘Lucy’ makeup. She doesn’t look like herself or Lucy. It also seems that she can’t move her face, so none of Lucy’s trademark mugging. Javier Bardem looks nothing like Desi. To be fair, his big leonine head and aquiline nose are so distinctive that CGI would have to do quite a bit of rearranging. I can just imagine Kidman’s husband, singer Keith Urban, wandering around set trying to recognize his wife. Fortunately, no artifice with Javier; his wife, Penelope Cruz would have no trouble finding him onset.

I don’t know what sort of personalities Lucy & Desi had IRL, but Nicole & Javier create an intriguing couple onscreen. She’s a sharp cookie who doesn’t waste her time yukking it up offscreen. He’s a charmer and natural impresario.

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Lucy explains the utopia that will result once worldwide communist revolution prevails.

By the time I Love Lucy launched in 1951, Lucy and Desi had both been around Hollywood long enough to know the mechanics of showbiz and to keep their careers moving forward in spite of the rampant sexism and prejudices they were sure to have encountered from casting directors to studio execs.

When Lucille Ball was offered a tv show opportunity as a goofy housewife with a sensible husband, she insisted on her husband Desi Arnaz being cast. The network executives tried to “reason” with her: No one will believe an All-American gal would marry a tan Spanish guy with a thick accent! In fact, he was Cuban-American. Good thing that Lucy persisted because his “Ricky Ricardo” persona added some zest to the black and white tv days.

In Being the Ricardos’ busy week rehearsing for that week’s episode, the week gets even more frenetic when Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz announce that they want her nascent pregnancy written into the show. The execs shake their heads:  No way! That will get the audience thinking of how she got that way and then they’ll think of sex and their heads will explode!  They nearly choke on the word pregnant and wonder if Americans could stomach hearing the word “expecting” on a television program. Imagine the stupor that Americans might fall into if they actually saw Lucy waddling around in a tent dress with a big expectant belly. This is just what the Russians would want! Speaking of the Soviets…

Sorkin’s screenplay takes the liberty of having the pregnancy conundrum take place the same week as Lucy’s Red Scare. A radio gossip item claimed that a famous Hollywood redhead was a Red. I Love Lucy was broadcast in black and white, but Americans were aware that she was a redhead from her film work. Actually, her hair was naturally brown, but clown-orange hair became her trademark look.

In the 1930’s Lucille Ball reportedly wrote ‘Communist’ for party affiliation on a voter registration card. She had already appeared before a panel of Congress’ House Un American Activities members, testifying that she may have done this to appease her grandfather who was a Socialist. She was “cleared” of being a Communist. Lucy, Desi and the network scramble to convince America that Lucy is not a Commie. Behind the scenes, voices are raised and many cigarettes are smoked. Uh, smoken? Anyway, Lucy has another big concern besides losing her show: Losing her husband.

History shows that Desi didn’t let his marriage vows interfere with his nights out with the ladies. One story claims that he couldn’t understand why his wife was upset because the other women were just “whores.” She regularly hears the gossip and Desi regularly denies it. Lucy also determines (according to the script) that Desi is in danger of feeling emasculated because he is not a producer on the show. His ego is already in danger from playing second banana on the hit show to his flame-haired wife!

Before you know it, the camera is zooming in on Lucy’s Nicole Kidman face as she intones, I need you to help save my marriage. I think she enjoins one of the producers in her scheme, or was it fellow actor Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) who plays her neighbor? No, she was sort of on the outs with her because she didn’t want the audience to like Vivian’s Ethel character too much. Lucy cleverly had fattening breakfasts sent to her dressing room.

You might be interested to know that insurance shill and okay actor J.K.Simmons (was he really that good in Whiplash?) plays William Frawley who plays Fred, the husband of TV Lucy’s neighbor Ethel. He bides his time trading insults with his co-star Vivian Vance like the two of them are vaudeville performers. The rumors are that he was an alcoholic, but in one scene he informs Lucy that he promised Desi he wouldn’t drink onset. He doesn’t say if not drinking in his dressing room was part of the deal.

Being the Ricardos incorporates clips from some classic episodes of I Love Lucy and in spite of some of the very uncool things going on in the 1950’s — witch hunting and whitewashing to be sure Americans conformed to a repressed ideal– it’s nice to know that even decades later, clips from classic episodes like “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” “Job Switching,” and “Fred and Ethel Fight”(the episode that is shown being produced in Being the Ricardos ) can still make us laugh.

Since I Love Lucy, the television business has progressed with more women producers (Hello, Shonda Rhimes!) and casts with more diverse accents and skin colors. But one thing about 1950’s society agreeing to not acknowledge: how pregnancy works… it would’ve been cool if back then storks really did deliver babies. Much more romantic than the drones that deliver babies nowadays.

Movie Loon Movie Review Shortcut:

Grade:   B+

Cut to the Chase: Entertaining look at tv pioneering couple with solid performances.

Humor Highlight:  I Love Lucy writers debating whether a seven-year-old actor on another show had to sign a loyalty oath attesting that he was not, nor had ever been, a member of the Communist party. Well, there was that kindergarten recess time when some kids were wondering if the janitor got a lunch break.

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