Being the Ricardos Will Embarrass You for Ever Doubting Nicole Kidman

The Oscar-winner delivers a career-defining performance in Aaron Sorkin's inventive and highly entertaining riff on the biopic format.

Being the Ricardos Will Embarrass You for Ever Doubting Nicole Kidman
Image:Glen Wilson/ © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

For Being the Ricardos, writer-director Aaron Sorkin devised an ingenious way to handle the time truncation necessary for a biopic’s ability to tell the story of a life within just a few hours. Sorkin mines a series of pivotal events that took place throughout the early seasons of I Love Lucy and collapses them all into one stressful week for his characters. The film follows Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, and their team filming the “Fred and Ethel Fight” episode of their sitcom. Interspersed throughout the production week, Ball juggles delivering news of her second pregnancy, her husband Desi Arnaz’s infidelity as reported by the gossip rag Confidential, and the allegations that Ball was one of the worst things a public figure could be in the 1950s: a communist. While all of these things happened between 1952 and 1955, neither the episode nor any of the aforementioned events coincided. By stacking potentially career-complicating events in this way, Sorkin creates a backdrop of tension while thrusting to the narrative forefront one of his creative preoccupations: process. Above all else, these people have a show to get through, and getting through it will be the ultimate sign of success in weathering this cluster of prospective scandals. As one character tells Nicole Kidman’s Ball: “If you tape a show Friday night, it means you still have a show.”

Sorkin’s structural ingenuity allows as much time to be spent on Ball’s red-scare scare as her obsession with the opening of “Fred and Ethel Fight,” whose script called for a rather daft opening in which her husband, upon arriving home, put his hands over Lucy’s eyes and made her guess who he was. The discussion (and eventual taping of that scene) comes up no fewer than 10 times in Being the Ricardos’ duration; Ball’s 1936 voter registration as a communist comes up about a dozen. In Sorkin’s motormouth style, Being the Ricardos deftly shifts from the micro to macro and back, from generalities of what Ball (and Arnaz) meant to granularity of what they did, seamlessly. “Keep up, it’s not that hard!,” Kidman’s Ball barks at Javier Bardem’s Arnaz at one point, but she may as well be addressing the audience. Not only is she right about it being not hard, it’s a goddamn delight. Like Spencer, Being the Ricardos sees the stodgy form of the Oscarbait Hollywood biopic as a challenge to overcome instead of an oppressive structure. It succeeds with panache, emotional clarity, and an indelible admiration not just for what Ball meant to television history and representations of women in pop culture, but also her exacting gifts as a technician of comedy and narrative storytelling. Being the Ricardos is such an excellent vehicle to tell a story about Lucille Ball (and not the story, which it has no interest in doing) because it is as obsessed with minutiae as its principal character.

Novelty goes a long way to make a biopic feel like something more than someone’s shot at awards-season gold, but movies of this genre still depend on their central performances. Nicole Kidman absolutely annihilates as Ball. That Kidman looks about as much like Ball as Jaws’s mechanical shark (Bruce!) does an actual great white is only a testament to the might of her performance. Crucially, Kidman nails Balls’ voice. She wears Sorkin’s potentially claustrophobic rat-a-tat pacing and dialogue with the casual elegance of a spacious robe. Kidman gamely shows her character’s wheels turning in this movie about process, at times telegraphing on her face emotion that she hasn’t yet expressed with words, either because she hasn’t gotten there yet or ultimately decides better of it. It’s rare to see a performance that shares so much interiority externally.

The rest of the cast is skilled and nimble enough to keep up and despite the film’s overall focus on Lucy and Desi, there’s some room for other attendant issues: Vivan Vance, who played Ethel on the show and is played by Nina Arianda here, is given an arc regarding the mandate to keep Ethel homely and berated by her character’s husband for it. Bardem isn’t the affective ringer for Arnaz that Kidman is for Ball, but his performance is similarly impressive in its multivalence. The Spanish actor projects the kind of unflappable benevolence required of a Cuban man working in Hollywood in the ‘50s while baring a dogged business savvy when called for (not to mention keeping from his wife the open secret of his infidelity).

Flashbacks take up judicious space, albeit via a slightly clumsy mechanism: by first flashing forward to the future. Being the Ricardos starts with (and intermittently cuts away to) staged interviews with actors playing older versions of those we see alongside Ball and Arnaz in the I Love Lucy writer’s room: writers Madelyn Pugh (‘50s version played by Alia Shawkat, older version played by Linda Lavin) and Bob Carroll (‘50s version played by Jake Lacy, older version played by Ronny Cox), as well as executive producer Jess Oppenheimer (‘50s version played by Tony Hale, older version played by John Rubinstein). When the main action of the ‘50s cuts to these “interviews,” whatever they’re talking about is then typically further explored via flashbacks (of Ball and Arnaz meeting, of Ball losing her contract with RKO with the heavy suggestion that by her mid-30’s she was too old to compete in Hollywood, of Ball refusing to kowtow to CBS’s racism and telling the network that if her husband from Cuba couldn’t appear on her show alongside her, I Love Lucy simply wouldn’t be happening). While integrating a pseudo-documentary device to contextualize the main action of the ‘50s frees said main action from expositional responsibility, it does give the story a bit of a stop-start feel that clashes with the grace of the movie’s best scenes, as frenetic as they are.

Telling this particular Lucy story at this particular time seems like not at all a coincidence—Ball was nearly canceled (both in the contemporary colloquial manner and literally in terms of her television show) for her suspected communist beliefs. She maintained that she registered for the party to appease her socialist grandfather (there’s a line in the Ricardos script about how doing so in the ’30s was, at the time, not considered to be much worse than registering Republican). As an audience, we naturally root for her to be exonerated in the court of public opinion because that’s how you watch hero-driven biopics. But one of Ricardos’ aims is to take an enlightened look at a less enlightened time, and so for audience members (in particular progressives), this may engage a sort of cognitive dissonance (even if you understand Ball’s dilemma as a product of its time, it still feels weird to root for someone to not be a Communist!). That J. Edgar Hoover, whose COINTELPRO targeted feminist organizations, ends up playing a key role in clearing Ball, effectively saving the day is enough to make a woke head spin. Sorkin’s script also spends a lot of time on Ball and Arnaz’s fight with CBS and sponsor Philip Morris to integrate Ball’s pregnancy in the plot of their show. That’s another mixed victory, as she ended up being the first pregnant woman on U.S. television, with some embarrassingly antiquated barriers to the telling of the whole truth (the word “pregnant” was apparently too hot to be uttered on the show). Being the Ricardos is an at times complex study in comparing and contrasting the way things were to what they’ve become.

Being the Ricardos is a story about myth-building that takes the myth-building so seriously one could reasonably label this movie the cinematic equivalent of poptimist. It’s called Being the Ricardos because the characters put so much effort into preserving the fictionalized and idealized showcase of Ball and Arnaz’s real-life marriage that was I Love Lucy. So many biopics purport to circumvent the public image of their subjects by getting under the skin and showcasing the true humanity, but Being the Ricardos does so by examining the very mechanism and ultimate worth of that public image. Here is where Sorkin’s methods diverge most visibly from his subject’s, and this is why Being the Ricardos is such a rewarding exercise during a time when celebrities and the people who love them are practically insisting on blanket kindness as well as a general lack of scrutiny in the way they are covered in the media. Being the Ricardos is not merely content to affirm Ball’s greatness, but to explain it, and only enough so that you can figure it out for yourself.

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