“Lucy, I’m home.”
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez were the biggest TV stars (by far) of the 1950s. Their show I Love Lucy was seen by up to 60 million people a week. That show took us into the home of Ricky and Lucy Ricardo, a small apartment filled with hilarity. But of course what is on TV is not always the same as real life. Being the Ricardos is Aaron Sorkin’s look at what might have been the reality behind the scenes.
The film is set in one week as the TV show goes from a script reading on Monday to the filming of the show on Friday. As is common in Sorkin’s films, plays, and TV, this is very much and ensemble piece. We meet most of the key players in that first reading. Lucille (Nicole Kidman) and Desi (Javier Bardem) are the stars and the power behind the show. William Frawley (J. K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) played their neighbors the Mertz’s. The show’s writers, Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale), Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat), and Bob Carroll (Jake Lacy) are also at the table as the group starts the work on this week’s show. But this is not a normal week. It is beset with a number of stresses that could bring an end to the show—and the marriage.
There are three main stressors that complicate this week, all of which were actual events that threatened the show, but not all in one week as we see here: accusations that Ball was a Communist, Ball’s pregnancy, and Arnez’s philandering. This leads to a number of meetings with the network and sponsor about keeping the show on the air. Here we see Arnez much more in control of the business aspects of the show.
There is also a great deal of rivalry among the other players. Frawley and Vance really don’t get along. Vance is resentful at having to play the older, frumpy Ethel Mertz. Pugh and Carroll carp at each other over how the show should be. In the writer’s room, Pugh pushes for the character Lucy to have a bit more feminist influence. She doesn’t want Lucy to seem stupid. (Ball certainly was not.) Ball is constantly wanting to rework the show—all the way up to Friday. All of this is brought out in the witty and acerbic dialogue that is Sorkin’s trademark.
This is not a film that tries to capture the comedy of I Love Lucy. It would be a disservice to the actors to expect them to recreate such icons, in part because we associate Ball and Arnez so much with their onscreen personas. Instead, this is a story about the real Ball and Arnez and the stress they had to work through as a married couple. As the story unfolds we learn a bit of their history together—their meeting, early marriage, conflicts of schedules that kept them apart until Ball demanded that Arnez play her husband on TV so they could be together (and hopefully save their marriage).
Ball and Arnez, as portrayed here, are a complex couple. At one point they’re described as “either tearing each other’s heads off, or tearing each other’s clothes off.” Arnez was very much in charge of the business side, Ball much more on the creative side (although they both took part in both). Arnez, who had been successful in acting and as a band leader, is now a second banana to his wife, and that may have caused resentment. Much of what drives Ball goes back to their meeting. At one point, Arnez asks Ball what she wants. Her answer is, “a home”. She doesn’t care about a large house. She wants the warmth and security and love of a home.
All through this difficult week, we see Ball struggling not just with all the threats to the show, both internal and external, but even more with the threats to her marriage. That marriage is in large part the reason for the show even to exist. And when we know that, it gives a new meaning to that line that Ricky Ricardo spoke so frequently.
Being the Ricardos is in general release and available on Amazon Prime Video.
Photos courtesy of Amazon Content Services.