Review: Being the Ricardos (2021)

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Being the Ricardos (2021)

Directed by: Aaron Sorkin | 131 minutes | biography, drama | Actors: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, Nina Arianda, JK Simmons, John Rubinstein, Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy, Tony Hale, Linda Lavin, Ronny Cox, Dana Lyn Baron, Dan Sachoff, Nelson Franklin, Clark Gregg, Jeff Holman, Baize Buzan , Christopher Denham, Max Silvestri

Although the last episode aired on May 6, 1957, “I Love Lucy” still ranks high on “greatest TV comedy of all time” lists, especially in the US. The series about naive housewife Lucy and her husband Ricky Ricardo, who is a singer and bandleader, was so popular that in its heyday some 44 million Americans tuned in to it. Lead actress Lucille Ball was a star in one fell swoop. For years she tried to gain a foothold as an actress, but she never got past a string of B-movies. It wasn’t until her CBS radio show “My Favorite Husband” that she found the genre in which she could excel: the sitcom where she could play the devoted, slightly neurotic wife. The show was such a success that there was soon talk of a television series. Ball insisted that she trade co-star Richard Denning for Desi Arnaz, the musician and bandleader who was also her husband in everyday life. The fact that Arnaz was a Cuban was especially sensitive. However, with a resounding vaudeville show, the couple managed to convince CBS and on October 15, 1951, the first broadcast of “I Love Lucy” was broadcast.

“I Love Lucy” was a resounding success, but also had a lot of struggles behind the scenes. Being the Ricardos (2021) follows Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Arnaz (Javier Bardem) during one of the most hectic weeks of shooting of their hit series. The audience raves about “I Love Lucy”, but behind the scenes there is hardly any laughter. Ball is under a lot of stress: a reported gossip reporter targets her and threatens to reveal to the outside world that the comedienne has a past as a communist (which was what happened in the early 1950s, at the time of Senator McCarthy’s crusade against anyone could in any way be linked to the ‘enemy’, could mean the death blow to your career). In Ball’s case, her “connection” to communism had been taken completely out of context; for herself in the incessant stream of rumors that her husband does not take it very seriously with the marital fidelity much worse. Writer/director Aaron Sorkin plays with the timeline, aligning mounting PR concerns with Lucille’s pregnancy; sponsor Phillip Morris definitely doesn’t want their star appearing visibly pregnant on TV, because just implying sex in the prudish fifties is seen as obscene (that they’d rather let her light a cigarette is, of course, quite hypocritical). And in between the acts, there is also a new episode to be recorded…

It is a smart choice by Sorkin to limit himself to a week in the turbulent lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and it is even smarter that he has found a way to provide the necessary context and interpretation: that is what he does. using flashbacks and flashforwards. Through the flashbacks we learn how Lucille once started and how she got to know Desi; in the flashforwards, a number of secondary characters, including producer Jess Oppenheimer and main copywriter Madelyn Pugh, look back on the events as their older selves. Sorkin, who we know from films such as ‘The Social Network’ (2010) and ‘Moneyball’ (2011), expanded his field of activity a few years ago from exclusively screenwriting to screenwriting and directing. With ‘Molly’s Game’ (2017) and ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ (2020) he has already proven that he can successfully perform this double role. The script of ‘Being the Ricardos’ is witty but overcrowded: Sorkin wants to say a lot in a short time. Not just the obvious, but also comprehensive issues such as the unequal treatment of women, the hypocrisy of Hollywood and media manipulation. That makes this film a bit top-heavy, although fortunately the focus remains on Lucille and Desi and their relationship, which has many faces and layers.

With Kidman and Bardem, Sorkin has managed to snare two Oscar winners. The casting of Kidman was criticized (ball is still so popular): her tall appearance, her voice and general appearance are nothing like much smaller, expressive Lucille Ball. The only thing that binds them is their red hair. It is all the more clever that Kidman has made the role his own. It’s to her advantage that Sorkin wrote the script in such a way that she only has to play the character Lucy Ricardo briefly; the real Lucille wasn’t always the funniest behind the scenes either. It’s clever how Kidman plays out Ball’s inner conflict: on the one hand there is the series that is such a success simply because of her presence, on the other hand she struggles with the fear of overshadowing her husband and losing him. Although she does miss the warm appearance that Lucille had (but that is often her shortcoming). Much less is known about Desi, he was always seen as the man who was lucky to be able to piggyback on his wife’s success. Played by the charismatic Bardem, he not only takes on something irresistibly mischievous but also more depth. Nice supporting roles include JK Simmons (also an Oscar winner) and Nina Arianda as the opponents of Lucille and Desi, William Frawley and Vivian Vance.

‘Being the Ricardos’ not only gives a glimpse of who Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were and how popular and influential their TV series “I Love Lucy” was, but also offers a nice glimpse into the television world in the 1950s, the role in it from TV stars, producers and sponsors and the power of the media. Although “I Love Lucy” was also broadcast in the Netherlands, Lucille Ball has not been nearly as big a star here as in America. As a result, we may not be getting all the jokes, winks and double layers out of the script on this side of the ocean. Nevertheless, there is still plenty to enjoy, especially thanks to the top cast and the inventive story structure.

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