Being the Ricardos (US 2021)

Being the Ricardos is an ‘Amazon Original Movie’. It did get into some UK cinemas on December 21st, I think, but mainly it has been available to Amazon Prime subscribers. Since I was more or less ‘forced’ into a free month of Prime membership, that’s how I got to watch it. I’m glad I got the opportunity because I thoroughly enjoyed the film. However, that has not been a universal reaction and it’s worth exploring why. First, I think the title is not very informative or inviting for audiences who don’t already know what the story is about. As someone who started watching TV in the 1950s, even I had forgotten that ‘The Ricardos’ were the family in the I Love Lucy TV series. Second, I suspect that some audiences, including some high-profile reviewers, have been taken in by assumptions that this is a ‘biopic’ and a ‘comedy’ and have found the film disappointing. I’d argue that it is only a ‘partial biopic’ (so many important aspects of the two central characters’ lives are not presented) and that the film is ‘about comedy on TV’ and not necessarily meant to induce laughs – though it made me smile on many occasions.

Lucy (Nicole Kidman) and Desi (Javier Bardem) in the meeting room for their weekly production planning

I think I’d argue that the film is primarily a hybrid of a ‘TV production procedural’, a romance melodrama and a show business drama. In other words, it’s a complex and ambitious production. Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, I assumed that it would be something like The West Wing and in a way it is. It is also a long film at 133 minutes and when I first heard about the production I assumed that it would be a TV mini-series. (It is, however, presented in a CinemaScope ratio that is more suitable for a big screen.)

Outline plot

In the late 1940s Lucille Ball, a Hollywood contract player whose career had never really established her A List status at RKO or MGM, was finding some success with a radio show My Favourite Husband for CBS. This prompted CBS to suggest a TV sitcom roughly based on the show. Lucy agreed but insisted that her real-life husband Desi Arnaz be cast as her TV husband and the family name became Ricardo. The couple formed Desilu productions and the show first aired in 1951. Lucy and Desi had been married since 1940 when they met on a Hollywood musical. Lucy was the lead in Too Many Girls with Desi as a supporting player. He also had a career as a musician and bandleader and the marriage was difficult as the two partners were often working in separate locations. Desi was often on tour and part of Lucy’s plan for the TV series was to keep Desi closer in a bid to stop his philandering.

Lucille Ball (the tallest woman in the group on the set of Dorothy Arzner’s Dance Girl Dance in 1940. Photo from ‘Bizarre Los Angeles‘.

The 1940s back story does appear in a series of flashbacks in Being the Ricardos, but the film’s narrative is set around the production schedule for one week in the second season during 1952. On the Monday the team are faced with possible disaster as a story about Lucy’s links to the US Communist Party in the 1930s threatens to break. (This is during the height of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings). A second issue also arises as Lucy is pregnant with the couple’s second child – something which for several reasons could be a problem for the show. These two issues sit alongside the long-running issues on any TV show such as squabbles between the stars and the writers and amongst the principal cast members as well as issues with the show’s sponsor Philip Morris cigarettes. Everything must be resolved by the time the show is recorded before a live audience on Friday for broadcast the following Monday.

Commentary

Lucy is played by Nicole Kidman and Desi by Javier Bardem. Both actors are older (more than 10 years older) than the ‘real’ Lucy and Desi and there are physical differences too. But both are very fine actors and they both worked for me. Kidman in particular seems able to suggest Lucy’s energy as a dancer and comedian. On reflection, though I always like Bardem, it might have given the part more ‘umph’ if a younger actor had been cast. Desi Arnaz was only 35 in 1952. He seems to have had a great deal of authority and a quick brain and in that respect, Bardem does represent him well.

Alia Shawkat (left) as the writer Madelyn Pugh, Nicole Kidman and Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance

Though the film clearly hinges on the relationship between Lucy and Desi, the other five important characters do give the film the feel of an ensemble piece. J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda play the actors William Frawley and Vivian Vance, who are the landlords and friends of Lucy and Desi on the show. Alia Shawkat and Jake Lacy play the two writers and Tony Hale plays the producer. These three roles are also played by three older actors in ‘flashforwards’ when they appear as ‘talking heads’ witnesses in a documentary biopic about the show. In effect, we have many interactions across three different time periods which could get a little confusing for audiences. Almost the entire narrative takes place in the TV studio apart from the 1940s flashbacks and the later interviews.

The studio set of the Ricardos bedroom for the original series. Photo from ‘Bizarre Los Angeles

For UK audiences two aspects of US TV history are also important. First is the production process: there were three different ways of shooting, editing and distributing TV shows. Shows could be shot live for instantaneous transmission, shows could be recorded on film, edited and distributed on film or they could be shot on video which was then recorded from the TV monitor using a Kinescope device (introduced by Kodak in 1947). This last option was necessary in the US because of the significant time differences across the country. A live broadcast in New York would often be too early for broadcast in Los Angeles. The downside was that Kinescope recordings were much lower quality even than the relatively poor broadcast TV image. Shooting on film gave the best quality but was the most expensive. Desilu opted to shoot on film using 35mm (rather than 16mm which was the UK standard) but to use three cameras in the same way live TV worked rather than single camera set-ups. Finally they brought a live studio audience into the shoot and by building two or more sets could record ‘live’ but then edit. This was the most expensive option but it preserved the live ‘feel’ that had worked so well on Lucy’s radio shows and in theatres on tour with Desi. The added bonus was that the high quality recordings could be re-broadcast. Some years later this led to ‘syndication’ – re-runs on smaller TV channels and export overseas. But the most immediate benefit was that the programmes were recorded in the studio Desilu acquired in LA and Desi and Lucy didn’t have to travel to New York. Seeing this process in operation was one of the high points of Being the Ricardos for me. The missing historical figure in the film is Karl Freund, the legendary director/cinematographer, one of the Central European emigrés who revolutionised Hollywood production from the early 1930s. Freund supervised the use of three film cameras, lighting them carefully to match scenes for consistent tones.

Karl Freund with Desi Arnaz in 1952

The second major issue for UK audiences is the role of the sponsor of the show. This was a feature of early US TV that carried over from radio. ‘Sponsorship’ allowed a major advertiser to control the show, inserting brands and product placement into the show and crucially proscribing some forms of representation. The word ‘pregnancy’ was a potential problem. In the UK sponsorship arrived much later in the 1990s and only allowed the sponsor to advertise in the breaks in commercial broadcasts, even when it had paid for the sponsorship association. In the US advertisers in the 1950s got their brands into the show’s title, e.g. ‘Kraft Theatre’ or ‘The Philco Television Playhouse’. Desilu became a powerful TV production company before finally selling up to Paramount in 1968 by which time Lucy had divorced Desi and bought out his stake in the company.

Nicole Kidman as Lucy performs for a live studio audience in the CBS radio studio during one of the flashback scenes

The whole film worked for me and I was interested in the internal disputes about this particular episode and the insight into the history of Lucille Ball’s work in Hollywood (and in particular her developing expertise in comedy playing for TV). I’m still not quite sure about the ways in which Desi Arnaz ‘solved’ the problems for the show’s production caused by the anti-communist investigations and the announcement of Lucy’s pregnancy, but they do suggest he was a brilliant producer. A full biopic of Lucille Ball would be an interesting prospect for me and Being the Ricardos has whetted my appetite. I’d also like to know more about Desi Arnaz. The one bizarre moment in the script is when Desi, explaining why he left Cuba, makes a reference to the ‘Bolsheviks’ who attacked his father and the family business. This was in 1933 when Desi was 16. It was the beginning of the military dictatorship following the ‘Sergeants Revolt’ led by Fulgencio Batista, certainly not a communist, who became the leader later ousted by the socialist revolution of 1959. This must be confusing/misleading for audiences who don’t know the history. But rest assured, most of what we see on the screen is based on the actual events in the development of I Love Lucy and the careers of Lucy and Desi. Here’s the Amazon trailer.

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