It’s always easy to be loved by lightning in a bottle; from within its confines, it reaches out, holds you, captivates you, becomes obsessed with you, and never lets you go. It has captured you. It is harder to love lightning in a bottle because it shines so brightly it blinds you; it projects warmth that you fear will one day leave you. It owns you; you don’t own it. Individually you are important; together you are magic.
This film from Aaron Sorkin and Amazon Studios is the story of a week in the life of Desi Arnaz and his wife Lucille Ball—a film of passion, turmoil, love from above the elemental plane of earth and sorrow that is resolute and inconsolable.
Having waited for two months after hearing of the December 21st debut of Aaron Sorkin’s latest work of genius truly gave me something to look forward to. At one minute past midnight on December 21, I opened Amazon’s website to check if it was available.
Christmas came early this year, because all I had to do was click, and instantly I was transported back to my 1950s childhood. The opening scene introduces Walter Winchell’s breaking news that Lucy (referred to only as “the redhead” had been a member of the Communist Party. The second scene introduces the full cast and crew of “I Love Lucy,” and there’s brilliant dialogue that will delight TV trivia fanatics who definitely know, even if they hadn’t known before, who Rusty Hamer was.
Next, you see all the CBS executives and too many representatives of the show’s sponsor, Philip Morris in Desi’s office at Desilu Productions. Finally, we’re back on set for Day 1’s Table Read. Background music begins and triggers the process by which the show’s director, producer, and two writers along with the stage director interact. And for the next two hours, you will lose all track of time because there’s no place but the world of the Ricardos and the Arnazes that matters.
In the first 18 minutes, you’re about to learn the backstory of Desi as singer, movie star, and mesmerizing lady killer. For every pre-movie crank who claimed there was no chance that Javier Bardem would be believable as Desi Arnaz, pay up whomever you bet with because no better actor could portray Desi than Bardem.
Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Lucy goes straight to the heart. Her presentation of the range of emotions that Lucy experiences in a week’s time is the height and depth of real-life angst and satisfaction from delivering what she knows she is capable of bringing. Not once during the movie did it occur to me that I wasn’t watching the “real” Lucy.
Note: to those who think this movie reflects the TV show, there are multiple scenes that would never have made it past the CBS censors in olden days, but don’t let that be a reason not to watch.
J. K. Simmons has proved over and over again what a brilliant actor he is. He is so good that he managed to reveal the true heart and spirit of Bill Frawley, who virtually every fan of the show considers to be the lesser light and grumpy old man. In fact, Simmons’ Frawley is brilliant, insightful, compassionate, and actually funny.
So far that’s three Academy Award winners so who do we get for Vivian Vance? A Tony Award winner, Nina Arianda. This may be the first you’ve heard of her but not seen. You After numerous successful Broadway plays, Arianda brings accolades from movies and television as well. Her portrayal of Vivian is superb and explores the story thread that Lucy always wanted Viv to be more like the average American housewife than movie star, especially in a contract that specified her minimum weight.
As seen multiple times, Lucy’s skill in envisioning full comedy scenes from one line pitched by a writer to full scene is part of the brilliance of the show: “Lucy stomps the grapes” was written on an index card on the corkboard; how it “became” the “stomping the grapes” episode happened in Lucy’s mind.
Three writers and one dreamer added up to magic. Lucy was a stickler for detail in set design, show flow, use of scenery, lines that didn’t work, and the “moving parts of physical comedy.” As you progress in the film, you won’t “hear” Nicole; you hear the range and timber of Australian Nicole as the real Lucy.
Desi Arnaz received the credit he was due and the respect as a businessman he so greatly deserved. Sorkin made sure to show the behind-the-scenes role that Desi played as he functioned literally and substantially as Desilu studios’ President. He had no trouble leading (wait until you see how he handled “the Red Scare.” No hints, no spoilers.
The dialogue flows: (Lucy to Bill Frawley) “Let me tell you something about Desi. He runs this show, every creative decision goes through him. Every business decision, the network, Philip Morris, and if that wasn’t enough, he is camera ready on Monday. Takes me five days to get a laugh. He’s killing at the Table Read. And believe me, that man is nobody’s second banana.” (Bill to Lucy) “And how many people know that? That Desi runs the show?”
Therein is the key to the major struggle in the Arnaz family at home. Home is a word that Lucy used often, wistfully, and it meant to her that it was a sanctuary for her and her family. For Desi, home was “the boat,” also their home together, as well as the stage at Ciro’s and everywhere he toured.
Once again, Javier Bardem kills as Ricky in his prime as a bandleader and performer. Whether or not Javier ever played the congas before this movie, thanks to coaching by the iconic Walfredo Reyes, Jr. (Chicago, Santana, Traffic), his playing of “Babalu” was perfect, down the detail of loosening his bow tie during the “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole” call and answer with the band. Later on, his version of “Cuban Pete” is another showstopper.
One unique aspect of the film is Sorkin’s inside look at the relationship between Jess Oppenheimer (writer and producer), Madelyn Pugh Davis (who just died this past April at age 90) and Bob Carroll, Jr., the three brains that wrote the dialogue that America memorized each week. Lucy and Desi brought life to the words, but a surprise reveal was the snarkiness and almost ridicule bordering on contempt that the brilliant writers showed Lucy…to the point of Desi having to have serious discussions with them about how disrespectful they were to her.
It was a bonus to see Linda Lavin portraying Madelyn Pugh Davis. Trivia fans will love that she was also known as Madelyn Martin from 1955–1960, as she was married to producer Quinn Martin, producer of “The FBI,” “Barnaby Jones,” and “The Fugitive, among at least 12 weekly shows he produced.
Perhaps their slight jealousy was understandable as your face, name, and existence are known only to faithful credit watchers, and it’s beyond real to have anyone give the writers a standing ovation, even if they win an Emmy or an Oscar. And yet, great dialogue in the hands of the wrong actors, simply is not funny, no matter what. All the stars in the sky must line up properly for the magic to happen. Here, magic was built on respect.
Respect was everything to Desi, not as much for himself, but for his wife and her talent. Sorkin’s dialogue captures that point and brings it home multiple times. That one tenet of faith that, at least professionally, was made clear was the unquestioned respect Lucy and Desi had for another and that’s where the love began. Offstage, it was easy to see where the love faded.
Lucy (with or without husband Gary Morton’s consent) stayed dear friends with Desi and his wife Edith. The two wives were very close and the blended families were often at Lucy’s home, so that everyone could visit with Lucie, Desi, Jr., and the grandchildren. Everyone had access to unconditional love in real life.
And yet, the acting and producing was also their real life. Lucy’s gift was comedy, not the Rita Hayworth and Judy Holiday stars that shone brightly on the dramatic screen. She resigned herself to that because she had a chance, one she demanded from CBS, to work with her real-life husband on a quality program that America fell in love with and shared with the rest of the world. The show was groundbreaking in so many ways, yet it remains fresh each time you see an episode today, even if it is the 34th time you’ve seen “Vitameatavegimen.”
When they worked together, they built an empire. It was Desi’s idea for the three cameras to shoot scenes more completely and the live audience would have an unobstructed view of the action. Occasionally Lucy’s dialogue would include stage directions and only then were you reminded that this was not real life you were watching.
Desilu Productions also produced “Star Trek,” whose shows remain almost as iconic today as “I Love Lucy,” and their reach is worldwide as well. Their “Mission Impossible” was the precursor to virtually every governmental secret agency show that would be developed for the next 60 years. For just three of their productions, that’s hundreds of millions of viewers amassed.
In its debut, “Being the Ricardos” is available on Amazon Prime today in the United States, Germany, Latin America, Paris, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and Italy. It’s a free film to Amazon Prime members, but I would have willingly paid $20 to watch it tonight. The Arnaz children, Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr., are two of the Executive Producers of this film. Along with other key producers, we had “one more chance” to be with a favorite couple from our Baby Boomer childhood. Aaron Sorkin is once again synonymous with brilliance in show flow, dialogue, and comedy.
In 2017 Amazon Studios won its first three Oscars for their film “Moonlight.” Someone better make room at headquarters, because this film is bound to bring home trophies. Thanks for an early Christmas, Aaron, Amazon, and the Arnaz family.