In 1953, the sitcom I Love Lucy was TV’s No. 1 series, and its two stars were adored by millions. But what if that had been the year the laughter died?
With the film Being the Ricardos, Oscar– and Emmy-winning writer-director Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) looks back to a period when Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem) could have lost their show and their marriage. “The script is inspired by the truth,” says producer Todd Black, “but boldly imagined.”
The showbiz couple thought their biggest challenge was Lucy’s real-life pregnancy. Defying tradition, they insisted that she would be pregnant on the program, a television taboo at the time. (It didn’t matter that their characters, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, were married.)
But far worse was to come. First, a photo of Arnaz with another woman appeared in a tabloid, then gossip columnist Walter Winchell revealed that Ball gave testimony to an investigator for the anti-Communist House Un-American Activities Committee in the midst of the Red Scare. There was reason to worry on both counts: Ricardo partied on nights away from his wife, and Ball had once registered as a member of the Communist party but wasn’t active. (The crises were real, but Sorkin compresses the timeline into one week.)
The accusations weighed on the couple and their friends, William Frawley and Vivian Vance, who played Lucy sidekicks Fred and Ethel Mertz. And Sorkin gives us a peek at the unusually tense time backstage, from Monday’s script read through Friday’s taping, as the actors and writing staff put together what could have been the show’s final episode.
Through it all, Kidman and Bardem share a remarkable chemistry, whether in scenes as the fictional Ricardos, as the real-life tempestuous husband and wife or as young stars, seen in flashbacks meeting more than a decade earlier.
“It takes a great deal of subtlety to play both Lucille Ball and Lucy Ricardo,” Sorkin says about Kidman, who masters the comedic character’s voice and mannerisms. The Australian actress, who knew little about Ball, says she “fell in love with the woman and the way Aaron wrote about her.” As for Bardem, “he is irresistible,” says Sorkin, “and that quality was essential, because we ask the audience to accept such bad behavior from Desi.”
Sorkin’s movie underscores Frawley’s and Vance’s (J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda) support for their pals, as well as the two actors’ bitter dislike of each other. Former Broadway star Vance hated playing the frumpy wife of a much older man, and the hard-drinking Frawley knew it.
Arianda sees her role as “a huge responsibility,” adding that her biggest challenge was “having to embrace Vivian and Bill’s cantankerous relationship because it’s impossible not to love J.K.,” also her costar on the Prime Video series Goliath.
To disappear into their characters, the stars sported wigs and copies of Lucy costumes, but Sorkin—arguing “this is a painting, not a photograph”—nixed facial prosthetics. The only concession: Kidman’s eyebrows were pulled up by silicone to re-create Ball’s wide-eyed look. That authenticity extends to a picture-perfect reproduction of the Ricardos’ TV apartment, down to the bedroom’s wallpaper.
And while the reinvention of that world is impressive, “this movie isn’t about I Love Lucy,” says Sorkin. As Bardem notes, it’s “a love letter to two resilient, creative human beings dealing with serious problems and trying to remain united.”
Being the Ricardos, Movie Premiere, Tuesday, December 21, Prime Video