While watching Being the Ricardos, I recalled a remark by the screenwriter Julius Epstein about his best remembered movie Casablanca (1943). Epstein, who wrote the film with his twin brother Philip and Howard E. Koch, referred to Casablanca as “slick shit.” Meaning that the picture eventually regarded as nonpareil cinema struck him as a fantasia that bore little resemblance to either actual world events or contemporary human behavior, but nonetheless was compelling entertainment.
I experienced a similar sentiment about Being the Ricardos. Lucille Ball’s career, teetering the precipice of a Red Scare era smear while she was pregnant and co-starring with her husband Desi Arnaz in I Love Lucy (the number one TV show in 1953), is shoehorned into a week of rehearsals, climaxing with the filming of the program and Lucy’s exoneration. It is a signature instance of effective story construction buttressed by intermittent flashbacks featuring the older characters of writers Bob Carroll (Ronny Cox), Madelyn Pugh (Linda Laven) and producer Jess Oppenheimer (John Rubinstein) discussing the circumstances and principals many years later.
Nicole Kidman’s performance of Lucille Ball is analogous to attempting to scale Mount Everest wearing shower shoes. Kidman is game and tries hard; her voice approximates that of Ball and many of her dramatic scenes possess genuine heft. But when she is shown in clips of I Love Lucy or relentlessly pursuing comedic perfection during show rehearsals, her turn doesn’t ring true. She comes across as gaunt, grim and unamusing. The dearth of humorous lift rests with Aaron Sorkin who was widely quoted as saying I Love Lucy is no longer funny—an admission of comedic cluelessness by the writer-director who understands how the legendary show was put together but not why it clicked with millions and became a classic continuing to be rerun around the world.
The rest of the cast is close to flawless. Javier Bardem is a superb actor; he literally becomes Desi Arnaz. Ditto for the great J.K. Simmons as a curmudgeonly William Frawley, Nina Arianda as Vivien Vance, Tony Hale as producer Jess Oppenheimer, Jake Lacy as an overly whining version of writer Bob Carroll and the appealing Alia Shawkat as writer Madelyn Pugh.
People of my age and background are often troubled by contemporary filmmakers being cavalier with the sequencing and accuracy of historical events. Most notable of this type of gaffe in Becoming the Ricardos is the invented conversation between then head of RKO Pictures Charles Koerner and Lucy with the latter referencing Judy Holliday (who didn’t make her screen debut until six years later) as getting choice parts that should have gone to her. There are also liberties taken with recounting of different events such as J. Edgar Hoover’s clearance of Ball. This type of pretzel twisting has been ongoing since DeMille’s barn was built and while it can be indicative of historical laziness, I tend to default to Alfred Hitchcock response to Farley Granger’s objection about some unrealistic aspect of Strangers on a Train— “Farley, it’s only a movie!”
What I found specifically objectionable was the running time and several attributes of Sorkin’s screenplay. At slightly over two hours, Becoming the Ricardos is overlong—90 to 105 minutes would have made for a more cogent picture. I had a similar, but more demonstrative gripe with the recent remake of Nightmare Alley which weighed in at two hours and twenty minutes, an excessive duration for a screen adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s dark carnival story. For all of his flaws, the chief virtue of a Darryl F. Zanuck was providing adult supervision by injecting editing discipline into a script, a director and rough cut. Alas, there are no more studio executives who appear to have any sense or conviction about a movie being any good unless it is based on a comic book character.
Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue, particularly in the first 30 minutes, ranges from pithily clever to self-indulgent. While listening to Kidman and Bardem volley rapid fire bon mots back and forth, I wasn’t entirely sure whether Sorkin was adapting His Girl Friday or if Lucy and Desi were appearing in a remake of Sweet Smell of Success. Most of it is quite enjoyable even if people didn’t speak in that manner, then or now.
There is also the infiltration of current culture mores and language into a period piece. In addition to the now-tiresome overuse of the “F” word which was assuredly not a routine part of the lexicon in 1953, would Jess Oppenheimer call himself a “show runner”? Would Madelyn Pugh have made an impassioned speech to Lucy claiming she was preventing the star from being “infantilized”? Worse yet was Lucy accusing Desi of “gaslighting” her. And forgive me, but I simply could not picture Lucy knocking back a neat Jim Beam while unburdening herself personally to crotchety Bill Frawley at Boardner’s bar in Hollywood.
Criticisms aside, Becoming the Ricardos facilely depicts how Lucille Ball bailed from a fading movie career (her film resume was not as desultory as indicated) and reinvented herself as a comedic television star who became an American icon. She was able to pull this off in large part due to her partnership with a brilliant husband who was much more than her comedic foil. Desi Arnaz was an exceptional executive who bought RKO ‘s studio facilities and was the guiding hand of Desilu before the years of booze and bimbos caught up with him. What impressed me is how Aaron Sorkin melded numerous true events into a dramatic story. Becoming the Ricardos might be inaccurate history but it is artfully designed entertainment.