If I hit him in the face until he is bleeding, does our insurance cover that?Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman), to her husband Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), about an irksome director
By now, American moviegoers are well-acquainted with Nicole Kidman and her talent for transformation. Woe unto the would-be cinephile who neglects to study her performance as Virginia Woolf in Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, for which she was awarded the 2002 Academy Award for Best Actress. In Being the Ricardos, Kidman lends her talents for transformation to her portrayal of Lucille Ball, almost inarguably the greatest television comedienne to ever work in the medium. You have to give props to pioneers Carol Burnett and Betty White as well, but I would argue that they were not possible without Lucille Ball paving the way for them with her grape-stained feet. Javier Bardem stars alongside Kidman as Desi Arnaz, Lucille’s real-life and television husband. Being the Ricardos also benefits from its stellar supporting cast, including Academy Award-winning actor J.K. Simmons as William Frawley, Tony Award-winning actress Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance, and Alia Shawkat as Madelyn Pugh. Linda Lavin portrays an older Pugh in mockumentary-style interviews interspersed throughout the film, and it should be said that any production benefits from Lavin’s inclusion.
Far from being an overarching biopic of Ball’s life or the marriage of Lucy and Desi, Being the Ricardos instead focuses in on one turbulent week during the filming of I Love Lucy. I have to mention here that parts of the film are blatantly ahistorical. Desi’s ousting as a philanderer, Lucy’s Communism debacle, and the announcement of her pregnancy did not all occur in the same week. However, I am willing to forgive Aaron Sorkin for condensing more drama into that fateful week than actually existed because we are talking about the cinema here and sometimes the cinema requires a little greasing of the wheels, so to speak.
What chafes me is that Lucy’s deeper involvement with Communism wasn’t explored. If they weren’t going to do it justice it should have been left out entirely. Along with that, certain episodes of I Love Lucy that were discussed in the film were misnumbered for no justifiable reason, allowing the pedantic among us (yours truly included) to itch with irritation.
I feel like the film would have been better served by focusing on one conflict rather than oscillating between numerous subplots that make the narrative shallow when the objective is depth. They could have eighty-sixed the Communism and the concomitant hokey convo between Desi, J. Edgar Hoover, and the live studio audience near the end of the film. Instead, to give the film its proper denouement, Lucy could have confronted Desi about his philandering right before the taping of the episode, leaving him shocked and shaken while Lucy triumphs once more as America’s most-beloved housewife.
The fact is, I hate to be so critical of a movie I enjoyed so much but I feel like a good movie was robbed of the opportunity to be great simply because Sorkin was trying to do too much at once. In my opinion, the best scenes in the film are the ones between Kidman and Arianda (Vivian Vance) and Kidman and Shawkat (Evelyn Pugh), respectively.
During the scenes where Lucy is engaged in conversation with the two women, the gender politics of the era (of any era, really) are thrown into sharp relief. Pugh’s presence as a woman in a writer’s room when so few women were given seats at the table provides fodder for excellent conversations about agency, representation, and the sharing of credit in a collective creative process. At the same time, Vance’s body issues and self-consciousness surrounding her weight illuminate the stark contrast in privilege that exists between Lucy, who is thin, trim, and wields enormous power on the set as the title character, and Vance, who is often written as the designated ugly fat friend married to a cantankerous old man when she is so much more than that.
J.K. Simmons is being lauded for his turn as William Frawley, and while his performance is more than solid, I really want to see the Academy give Nina Arianda some love too, if for nothing else but deftly navigating Vance’s struggles vis-à-vis the gendered body politics of both the entertainment industry and the country at-large during the 1950s. When you see Vance struggling, it reminds you that precious little progress has been made toward body positivity and acceptance of people of all sizes, especially for women and femme-presenting people.
All in all, despite its cluttered script and odd pacing, Being the Ricardos succeeds due to its incredible performances from not only Kidman, who is a revelation, but the rest of the powerhouse cast as well.
Being the Ricardos was released on December 10th, 2021 and is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
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