Being the Ricardos: An Impression

The understated historical drama that documents Lucy and Desi Arnaz’ marriage during one week of production during the McCarthy Era turns up the heat on marital infidelity and women as entrepreneurs in the 1950s.

I had to watch this twice to grasp the depth of what Oscar winning writer-director Aaron Sorkin is conveying in this movie. It’s a subtle message and I think most will miss it. Unless you are older than 50 and have a keen interest in Hollywood history and the federal government’s well documented efforts to suppress “rogue” narratives (labeled as communist) in the mid-20th century much of the significance of Sorkin’s tale will be lost. He doesn’t walk the viewer through the maze of cultural shifts that defined the 50s, he simply presents them.

This is a film that’s a piece of history at a pivotal point, not just in Lucy’s life and career but in our country. The story opens with a series of interviews with writers and producers who explain how Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunt for communists in the UnAmerican Activities Commission was investigating the social and political preferences of Hollywood names. Lucy was accused of being a communist and that threatened her career. This framing device is crucial in clarifying the political backstory so at least there’s that.

As sophisticated as this storyline is, and many of us can appreciate the kid-glove deftness of the approach, I’m afraid Sorkin’s refinement is his worst enemy in communicating to a contemporary mass audience. The historical setting of the piece is drawn in a kind of short form dictation. But this period marks the end of the golden age of Hollywood movies (which Lucy fought to star in as an RKO Contract player but never made it past B movies and bit parts). So why isn’t this a significant beat with more documentation footage?

This was also the dawning of the golden age of television in the early 50s. But all that culturally significant information is not overtly communicated. Why not? The day-to-day production conflicts on the Hollywood set and direct advertiser input also appear as a given but actually target the insider and seem to intentionally exclude the Everyman. I get the dramatic reasoning behind this creative decision. I just don’t think it works for the majority of viewers.

The reasons behind why the cast and crew of characters on the I Love Lucy show act the way they do or how Lucy’s testosterone driven, obsessive micromanaging undermines her marriage are likewise left more as repeated refrains rather than escalating plot points that move the story forward Is this too harsh? I appreciate what Sorkin has done here, I just don’t believe mainstream audiences are ready for it. Sorkin has been faithful to facts except for one thing. The witch-hunt, Arnaz’ infidelities and Lucy’s pregnancy didn’t all happen in one week. This is probably why the plot doesn’t build as it might’ve done.

By the same token, the sheer craft of his writing is likely to gain him at least an awards nomination. Will it be an Oscar or an Emmy? I don’t know how they’ll categorize movies that stream. We’re living in an age where the definitions of theatrical and television are becoming a blur, especially with the pandemic changing the length of release windows and sometimes releasing a theatrical and streaming it simultaneously. Being the Ricardo’s does have a tiny box office because it opened theatrically in New York so I believe that qualifies it for Academy Award consideration.

Nicole Kidman plays a pitch perfect Lucille Ball and Javier Barden is a virtual channel for Desi Arnaz. One or both could be nominated this Awards season. We feel like we are watching the real actors as they spar off-stage and reenact on-camera scenes from the 20th episode of I Love Love Lucy. Actor J.K. Simmons puts in a convincing performance as actor William Frawley aka Fred Mertz as well.

The look of the film is distinctive as well. It has a noticeably grainy character that lends it an authenticity it would’ve otherwise lacked. I Love Lucy was, in fact, the first TV show to be shot on 35mm film. Lucy and Desi paid out-of-pocket for this unique look but got ownership of the reels in return. DesiLu Productions was the first to use the reels as reruns., which in hindsight is a stroke of genius.

Writer-director Aaron Sorokin began as a playwright before he became a screenwriter. Now he seems to have found a new home in writing and directing long-form theatrical dramas for streaming. So there’s a symmetry here from the creative unsaid as well. All that being said, and ironically enough, I enjoyed the movie, maybe BECAUSE it doesn’t dumb itself down.

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