Nicole Kidman’s star turn as Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos is an acting masterclass. She gives an awe-inspiring, nuanced performance (an Oscar nomination awaits) alongside another seriously good showing from Javier Bardem; and impressive turns from JK Simmons and Nina Arianda.
The action takes place during a single production week for an episode of America’s then-most-popular television program, I Love Lucy. At its peak in the 1950s, the show had a weekly viewership of around 60 million. But Ball’s entire future is on the line when she’s “outed” as a Communist, although the truth is something different. She fears that the story will hit the dailies and result in public humiliation.
Writer and director Aaron Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7) paints Ball as a control freak – a detail-oriented person with finely tuned instincts, who refuses to compromise on lines or set ups she believes are less than ideal. The business acumen rests in the hands of her husband and co-star, Desi Arnaz (Bardem), a Cuban who fled oppression to make a name for himself as a Latin American band leader. Problem is, for all the love the pair share, Arnaz is spending less and less time at home overnight … and Ball suspects him of infidelity.
When Ball falls pregnant, the couple are intent on getting the fact incorporated into the television program. But it’s the ‘50s and the word “pregnant” isn’t even said on the box, let alone “shown”. Studios and sponsors won’t allow it. Beyond that, Ball gets an unlikely chance to move beyond her snappy comic turns in a serious motion picture, the consequence of which is quite unexpected.
The less you know about Lucille Ball’s back story, I dare say the more you’ll appreciate this film. Sorkin’s highly intelligent and sophisticated script depicts Ball and Arnaz as smart operators. JK Simmons plays William Frawley, a seasoned veteran and secondary performer on I Love Lucy. He’s a heavy drinker and cynic who enjoys a love-hate relationship with his sensitive co-star Vivian Vance, a role filled by Nina Arianda.
The film unfolds on three levels. First, documentary-style interviews in which players from back in the day reflect on what happened. Next, the cut and thrust of the day-to-day operations inside the I Love Lucy production office, where the personal is mixed with power and politics. That includes one-on-one interactions between an increasingly paranoid Ball and Arnaz. And finally, the movie intersperses black-and-white I Love Lucy show sequences which illustrate Ball’s impeccable comic timing. The combination is a winner, adding credibility to the narrative.
Kidman’s high-pitched daffy Ball vocalisations are only there in small measure. Far more prominent is the astute, regular voiced wife, actor and collaborator. Javier Bardem is perfectly cast as the magnetic lothario, who knows just which strings to pull. Both are excellent, in keeping with the quality showings of all the key players.
The mercenary nature of the entertainment industry as well as the vicissitudes of life get a good going over in Being the Ricardos, which I regard as compulsory viewing. You can stream it on Amazon Prime.
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Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.