Being the Ricardos

BEING THE RICARDOS IS MORE ABOUT LUCY THAN RICKY

Life in Hollywood is often chaotic. Many persons work through their personal ambitions and tensions on a day-to-day basis by playing acting roles, but they may never reach their secret goals. Being the Ricardos, directed by Aaron Sorkin, is a window into that life, serving mostly as a biopic of Lucille Ball (played by Nicole Kidman). Although many persons present at the events depicted in the film have their own versions of events, much of the docudrama is based on information found in nearly a dozen books, including her autobiography Love, Lucy (1996) and his, A Book (1976).  

Ostensively, the film tries to capture one week in Lucy’s life that is filled with more tension than almost anyone could endure. Flashbacks and contemporary documentary-style comments provide information to a fast-paced reconstruction of a Monday to Friday of the I Love Lucy show. Five issues are addressed—(1) how she corrected scripts to enhance humor, (2) her relationship with her husband Desi Arnaz (Javier Barden), (3) pregnancy while the series is ongoing, (4) her alleged Communist Party ties, and (5) how she navigated agents, a producer, a sponsor—and Desi.

Some background, left out of the film, will explain why Lucille Ball shows up in Hollywood, though born in Jamestown, New York, in 1911. She was raised primarily by grandparents because her father died before she was 4, and her mother worked several jobs. She cheered up her dying grandfather by signing up as a member of the Communist Party in 1936. In a dramatic school in New York City, she was rejected for not rising to the tomboyish level of her classmate Bette Davis, one of several women at the time who gained fame by outsmarting men on the screen. She was in several films from 1933 to 1945, impressing Desi Arnaz romantically, and they marry in 1940. At the time of the marriage, he was a musical star, so she moved into his house. She would work from 4 a.m., but his work schedule at Ciro’s, the most famous dance bar in Los Angeles, meant that he would come home around 3 a.m. As indicated repeatedly throughout the film, the marriage was never satisfactory for her because she really wanted a “home.” Ricky, a macho male playboy from a prominent family in Cuba, insisted on having the last say in every dispute.

The film begins in about 1949, when her gesticulations and face antics to audiences in her starring role of a live radio program impress a film producer, who offers her a starring role in a TV version of the same program, My Favorite Husband, where her husband is a bank exec. However, she insists that she will only play a role with her husband, Desi. Calling the new TV show I Love Lucy was clearly one way for her to “save the marriage.” Indeed, she had to overcome anti-Hispanic bias to have Desi Arnaz cast in the role of her husband in the program, which began in 1951 and soon became the top-rated show on television. (The plot of the series was how a famous musician, Ricky Ricardo, wanted his wife to remain a housewife, a role that she repeatedly tried to abandon to earn money on her own in a manner that showed comedic genius.)

The film also depicts how a male comedy writer differs from a female comedy writer, demonstrating male bias based on ignorance about women, something that Lucy does so more dramatically. Lucy and Desi also gain approval over opposition from various quarters to include her pregnancy in a few series.

On Monday of the week in 1953 reconstructed in the film, she is exposed as having been a member of the Communist Party. I Love Lucy then seems in jeopardy. Some suspense in the film focuses on how Ricky and others deal with the problem: When he asks her to lie that she merely “checked the wrong box,” she refuses. Ricky then publicly announces on Friday that her supposed membership is false. (A clever scene has Ricky calling the FBI head, J. Edgar Hoover, to validate that she is not under investigation, though no such call was ever made.)

The denial works, and the program continues for about four years after the controversy, ending in 1957. (The era of Communist witch hunting also comes to an end in 1954, when U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy was censured by the United States Senate, though the Washington Post reported in 1989 that her FBI  investigation was ongoing.)

The film ends in the dressing room after the Friday live show prefaced by the HUAC refutation. Lucy presents Ricky with evidence of one of his sexual escapades, and a title at the ending indicates that she filed for divorce in 1960.

Nevertheless, her acting career and his musical career continued thereafter. They co-founded Desilu Productions in 1950 to sponsor I Love Lucy and other cinematic outputs, though she bought him out in 1962. He died in 1986 of lung cancer at age 71, while she died of an aneurysm in 1989 at age 78.  MH      

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