Being the Ricardos

(4 Stars) A wonderful synthesis of the pair - not a documentary!

Oscar Nominations:

Leading Actress (Nicole Kidman)

Leading Actor (Javier Bardem)

Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons)

Can anyone impersonate Lucille Ball?  I’m thinking maybe not – she has such a distinctive style and look that, no matter how much makeup is applied, or even how good an actress she is, no-one will succeed playing Lucille Ball.

Indeed, that is one of the recurring criticisms of Nicole Kidman in Being the Ricardo’s  – she just doesn’t quite cut it.  Some fault the makeup, arguing that it makes Kidman’s face stiff and unable to deliver the kinds of expressions that make Lucy famous.  Others suggest Kidman is just too cool of an actress to play the hot-headed redhead.  Kidman, herself, said she was “terrified” of the role and wondered whether she would successfully pull it off.  To many viewers and critics alike, she didn’t.  Coupled with similar criticisms of Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz, then, it isn’t hard to understand why this film rates near the bottom of the critical and popular scales among this year’s Oscar-nominated movies – people didn’t like this film because their images of Lucy and Desi weren’t in it!

I get all of that – in fact, early into my first watching of the film I asked my wife the simple question – could anyone successfully impersonate Lucille Ball?  Think about that a while and try to come up with personalities that might have been chosen – I can’t come up with anyone.  Apparently Cate Blanchett was originally suggested for the role, but would she have worked any better?  I don’t think so.  Lucille Ball is simply a one-of-a-kind character and I don’t think anyone can become her.  So, if what you demand is a high-fidelity rendering of the main character in this film, you are going to be disappointed – and, it appears, most viewers were.

But that is a really unfair expectation, because this is really an excellent film.  If you can back off the notion that this is somehow a biography of the life of Lucille Ball and her marriage to Desi Arnaz, then the movie takes on some amazing power.  Considered as a chronicle of an actress, her troubled marriage to a brilliant but conflicted man, all thrown together in a stewing pot of a television production and a nationwide political storm, you have an amazing movie.  That it might also provide some insight into two of America’s cultural icons is just an added bonus.

Nicole Kidman, along with Cate Blanchett, is among my favorite actresses.  (Oscar-nominated for her roles in Moulin Rouge, Rabbit Hole and Lion, she won the Leading Actress Oscar for her performance in The Hours.)  Kidman has always lent a glamorous and, at 5’11”, a statuesque appeal to her characters, most recently in Bombshell.  In Being the Ricardos, she comes across as maybe a little too skinny, but with prostheses and costumes she comes fairly close to looking like Lucille Ball.  But still, she doesn’t have the facial expressions nor the near-perfection in delivering physical comedy.  Aside from the comedy, though, she delivers solidly on the drama.  I suspect that was more the reason for the nomination.

The critics all noted that Jarvier Bardem just doesn’t look like Desi Arnaz.  But he, too, delivers a take on the man that shows the intelligence and the fighting spirit Desi harbored for his wife.  It is worth noting that Bardem also sings several of the songs (and does an admirable job on the bongos).  Whether this qualifies him for an Oscar nomination, though, I’m not quite sure.

The two supporting actors, J.K. Simmons as Bill Frawley (Fred Mertz) and Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance (Ethel Mertz) nail their characters with a precision that is uncanny.  Simmons received a supporting actor nomination for his role here and Arianda probably should have.  The interactions between all four of these characters were wonderful and suggest a terrific ensemble team that obviously enjoyed their roles.  The seemingly effortless performance by the supporting characters sort of explains the reason the movie failed for so many people – the expectations for actually seeing the real Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz – the Ricardos – is just too high for anyone to actually succeed.  Arianda and Simmons succeed, because we don’t have quite as strictly defined personality profiles for the Mertz’s.

In many ways, then, the fact that this film received three acting nominations and nothing for directing or writing is puzzling.  In my opinion, the strength of this film is in the script and the way the story is told.  And for that the credit goes to Aaron Sorkin.  Sorkin won the Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Social Network and since then has been nominated for his scripts for Moneyball, Molly’s Game, and, most recently, The Trial of the Chicago 7.  His scripts have a unique way of taking very complicated subjects (like courtroom proceedings, or a gambling ring) and explaining them with rapid dialog.  His characters are always very complicated people, often rooted in real life, who are under intense pressures.  The plot is executed more as conversations between characters than as heavy action scenes and he often mashes together scenes from different locations or times to help elaborate on a common element.

In Being the Ricardos for example, he uses several different tricks to tell the story.  In one of them, we get to peer deep into Lucy’s mind as she imagines how an episode they are working on is going to play out.  He even pictures that scene in Black and White because that is how it would have been shown on television at the time.  He also brings in elements of a ‘mockumentary’ by interviewing some of the minor characters, using actors portraying them as much older people.  Even though these are actors, they help frame events by telling back stories which might then be the basis for a kind of flashback.  He uses this technique several times to tell the story of how Lucy and Desi met and how they ended up doing this particular television show together.

Unfortunately it is these same techniques that cause even more backlash from critics and the viewing public.  And the main reason is that Sorkin doesn’t exactly tell the real story.  I don’t know how many times I read that the events portrayed in this movie didn’t happen the way it was suggested.  The film supposedly takes place during the week they were filming a particularly famous episode of “I Love Lucy”, the fight between the Mertz’s.  (There is a dated newspaper featured in the film that suggests it was the week of Sept 8 – Sept. 12, 1952).  Apparently, it turns out that that particular episode couldn’t have been filmed that week.  Then it turns out that the three huge events that happened that week – that give the film all of its dramatic import – actually occurred in multiple other weeks and didn’t occur together at all!  (For example, Ball’s first pregnancy was a year earlier.)

For some, I guess, the precise attention to biographical facts really matters.  Enough, I guess, to thoroughly pan this movie.  But I come away with a very different take.  The title of the movie isn’t “A Week in the Life of the Ricardos” – instead it is “Being the Ricardos”.  And it isn’t billed as a documentary, but rather a dramatic rendering of what these two phenomenal people were like.  What Sorkin has accomplished is not a day-by-day, blow-by-blow, account of a week in the lives of these people.  Rather, by combining events from multiple years and melding them together into one very complex and emotional week, we get a real sense of what was motivating these people and what made their lives move.

Sorkin’s screenplay may not be time-line accurate in the facts that it presents, but it does tell a moving story about two people who struggled very hard as imperfect beings to love each other and live full lives with all the warts and blemishes that promise to unfold.  For me, Sorkin’s screenplay, like so many of his earlier works, should have been nominated – it is a wonderful work and his film is a remarkable example of movie craftsmanship.  

I get that maybe Kidman and Bardem just aren’t Lucy and Desi, but the film delivers an emotionally rich and intellectually challenging take on just what it might be like “Being the Ricardos”.  (4 Stars)

Streaming on Prime Video

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