Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Loving Lucy; Leaving Desi

Lucille Ball was a comic genius, and Desi Arnaz wasn’t far behind. That’s something of which I’ve been sharply reminded recently, while watching early I Love Lucy re-runs to welcome in the new year. Lucy’s subversion of the “happy homemaker” trope worked for me as a kid growing up in a house with a brand-new TV set. And over a decade later, while a student in Tokyo, I watched with delight as my roommate’s young nephews roared with laughter at Lucy’s antics, dubbed into Japanese.

  Despite the joyousness of the sitcom, which ran from 1951 to 1957, most of us know there were cracks in the Ball/Arnaz marriage that kept widening even while the show that celebrated a fictive version of their union was a high-flying hit. Desi may have truly loved Lucy, but his obsessive philandering (coupled with chronic alcoholism) led Ball to file for divorce in 1960, once their last show together was in the can. Given the two stars’ vivid personalities and their long-range impact on Hollywood, it made sense for Aaron Sorkin to undertake a film about the ups and downs of their lives together. And it seems smart of Sorkin, an award-winning screenwriter before he took up directing, to use as his structural framework the week leading up to a particularly fraught live taping of I Love Lucy.

 There’s nothing like a ticking clock to enhance a film’s dramatic appeal. In Being the Ricardos, we move through a fall 1953 work-week, Monday through Friday,  in which a new episode of the show is written, rehearsed, and put on its feet before a live studio audience. Aside from the usual artistic pressures, this particular week presents an enormous challenge, because a blind item in Walter Winchell‘s column has pegged Ball as a member of the Communist Party. Given the political pressures of the era, if the rest of the media turn against her now, the popular TV series will be no more. This possibility hangs over the taping of the episode, while Ball herself pays more attention to another newspaper item, one emphatically implying Desi’s marital infidelity. This is strong stuff, and it leads to a climax that works wonderfully well, combining both victory (Ball’s patriotism is endorsed by her fans) and defeat. It’s the matter in between that I find problematic.

 Though Sorkin appears to have whittled down his Ball/Arnaz saga to one climactic week, he stuffs that week so full of hot-button issues that we can barely keep up. To wit: in and around the tensions provoked by the news items, Lucy and Desi announce she’s expecting a baby. This wasn’t historically true of the week in question, and the pregnancy contributes nothing of value to the specific story being told, though it allows us to see Desi’s clout when he demands that the pregnancy be worked into the show, in defiance of previous TV industry mores. Ball gets a feminist rant too, in support of her Lucy character. And Sorkin jumps outside the structure he’s set up in other ways, adding flashback to earlier points in the life of the couple (their first date, her evolution into a redhead, her insistence that Desi—not some white guy—play her husband on her new TV show). We leap into the future too, with the three key members of the I Love Lucy writing team—now much older and played by different actors—looking back on the implications of that frenzied week as well. The result is a tangle, one that some bravura performances (particularly by J.K. Simmons as William “Fred Mertz” Frawley) can’t unsnarl.

 For those who’ve seen the film, here’s an L.A. Times breakdown of how well it jibes with the historical facts of the Desi/Lucy relationship.



  1. You liked it more than I did. I found the direction average at best and the writing extremely lazy. Bob Carroll and Madeline Pugh weren't like the character versions in the film - they didn't snipe at each other like that. Nor did the show have an idiot director like that. The actual way that the scene where Hoover calls and speaks to the audience is much more interesting and dramatic, IMO, and on top of all that, what's with the inept anachronisms - did no one have the courage to tell Mr. Sorkin the word "show runner" wasn't a thing until 1990? Or that they didn't call I Love Lucy a "taping" because - there was no tape back then, "meal penalty" wasn't an expression then either. I didn't hate it or anything - I thought the actors were mostly fine.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Mr.Guy Haines (but shouldn't you be out playing tennis?) I love your pointing out the behind-the-scenes TV anachronisms. But I admit I can't follow your point about the Hoover phone call. Did you like it or not? (We know that historically it didn't happen that way, but it certainly makes for an effective moment, imho.)

    2. I thought the Hoover thing was okay, but not as interesting as what happened in real life, where it was Desi who came out to the studio audience and said something along the lines of, "The only thing red about Lucy is her hair." It got cheers and on they went. Why not just do that? If you haven't seen CODA, I highly recommend it - it does everything right.

    3. I'd like to see CODA, but I'm not sure I have the right screening service. Where can it be viewed?