I love Lucy. Which is to say that I love Lucille Ball, a comedy genius for the ages.
I love Nicole Kidman. She’s a talented, versatile actress who has starred in many of my favorite movies.
Unfortunately I don’t love Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball in Aaron Sorkin’s new biopic Being the Ricardos.
There isn’t a millisecond of this movie in which she convincingly looked like or transitioned into Lucille Ball, despite all the makeup and digital effects available to contemporary filmmakers these days.
I know. You could argue that you really don’t need to look like the person you’re portraying if you reach down and capture the essence of their soul. Audiences will cut you a break.
But the failure of Being the Ricardos is in large part due to Nicole Kidman’s failure to convincingly conjure up or connect with Lucille Ball. It just doesn’t happen.
The disconnect is made more apparent when compared to the performances of the other three lead characters, Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz (Lucy’s husband in real life and her on-screen husband on the I Love Lucy show), J.K. Simmons as William Frawley (The Ricardos' neighbor Fred) and Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance (Fred’s wife Ethyl).
They all do a credible job.
When I first heard the rumors about a Lucile Ball movie in the works, I wondered who would be cast in the starring role. For me, it was a no-brainer. Debra Messing not only had the facial resemblance and figure for the role, she actually appeared as Lucy in one of the comedy segments of her show, Will and Grace.
She nailed it. And it was very clear that if anyone had any designs on making a movie about Lucille Ball, Debra Messing was the best choice, hands down.
But that didn’t happen. Initially, Cate Blanchett’s name was tossed around when the project was taking shape, but when that didn’t pan out, it was announced that Nicole Kidman would play the role. It was bewildering to me.
I knew that she had the star power and clout to get aboard the project. But for me, it just wasn’t a good fit. I reserved judgement and hoped to be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.
I was slightly encouraged when I saw some of the early posters and artwork. But we all know that PhotoShop can make anyone look like just about anyone else with the limitless possibilities of digital tweaking.
Then came the movie trailers which offered up some of the best Kidman/Ball moments.
The jury was still out.
But now the full movie is out for all the world to see. For me, Kidman sports Lucy’s famous fiery red hair, and that’s about it. The facial features aren’t even close.
There seemed to be no attempt to even try to close the gap with the application of Lucy’s iconic eyelashes or lipstick. It’s basically just Nicole Kidman as a rednead, struggling to do Lucille Ball’s voice.
Aaron Sorkin wrote and directed Being the Ricardos. He’s a writer I really like and respect. He is an emerging director whose movie The Trial of the Chicago Seven (2020) really impressed me.
I had faith that his behind the scenes tale of the Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz would be more than just fluff.
His approach here is to take us back in time to witness a week of their lives back in the 1950s when they collaborated on the I Love Lucy Show. It’s a week of table reads, blocking, rehearsals and all the frantic activity leading up to the recording of the show.
I didn’t say the taping of the show because videotape didn’t exist back in those days. Television shows were done live. The only means of preserving them was to set up a film camera and point it at the screen of a television set. Virtually all of the existing TV shows done in the Fifties were preserved in that manner.
But then came Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball and their breakout ideas, including shooting their shows on three 35mm film cameras during the performances in front of live studio audiences.
They knew that their material was so timelessly good that it could be viewed and enjoyed again and again. Which led to their groundbreaking idea of syndication which made them both millionaires.
They famously bought the RKO Studios where Lucy had been a mere contract player and renamed it Desilu, for Desi and Lucy.
They were televisions first powerhouse couple. Being the Ricardos captures their deep love and respect and intense physical attraction to each other. But it also shows a darker side of the story that led to their much-publicized divorce years later.
The movie ambitiously tried to compress some of the biggest highlights of their story into just one week of time. During those seven days, Lucy faces scrutiny and potential loss of her career when she is accused of being a Communist, in the days of the McCarthy Era when that accusation could end your career forever.
In the middle of all this, Lucy announces that she is pregnant, another taboo in the world of TV and entertainment back then. Rather than going into hiatus, Lucy and Desi decide to make it a part of season’s programming culminating with the arrival of the baby in the final season episode—something unthinkable in the conservative, post-war era of the Fifties. It was a tough fight to make the network and the sponsor agree to.
Being the Ricardos takes some liberties and artistic license but presents a compelling story based on real life events.
It’s a story that casts Lucy in a very different light, showing her as a pioneering headstrong female presence in a world of male dominance who proved to be tough and shrewd in addition to being immensely talented.