Being the Ricardos

Now this is how you do a biopic!

Aaron Sorkin is an absolute master; “Being the Ricardos” hosts an incredibly strong performance in Nicole Kidman, but Sorkin has managed to avoid the trappings of relying solely on the leading role to carry the entire film and producing an otherwise formulaic and unimaginative narrative. Don’t get me wrong, Kidman as Lucille Ball, while fans of the world’s most famous flaming red head initially criticised Sorkin’s casting, is phenomenal and I would say probably most deserving of the Lead Actress Oscar this year, but its Sorkin’s sharp and slick style and his way of playing around with the film’s structure that makes the story of a sit com star from the 1950s as captivating and fast paced as a political thriller. This shouldn’t be surprising I suppose, nobody really anticipated a story about a mean spirited little computer nerd would become one of the most acclaimed dramas of the 21st century.

The film takes place over the course of a week in 1953 during the filming of an episode of “I Love Lucy”, with flashbacks throughout of how Lucille moves from “Queen of the B Movies” to America’s most beloved sitcom star and her intense and often tumultuous relationship with Desi Arnez (Javier Bardem). During the course of this week, Sorkin has compressed a number of major events that took place over a number of years into these few days which, for the purpose of the story actually works quite well. During these few days; Lucille and Desi work with their co-stars William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) on that week’s show, Lucille falls pregnant so she and Desi negotiate with CBS producers for Lucy to have a baby in the show (which was unheard of at the time due to the insinuation that children in sit coms then just miraculously appeared fully formed), Lucille is accused of being a Communist in a national newspaper, and Lucille and Desi struggle with Desi’s infidelity. Big week for the Ricardos!

First and foremost, this is probably the best performance of Kidman’s career. I was nervous how she would go with recreating Lucille Ball’s iconic voice, since accents haven’t necessarily been her strong suit, let alone trying to imitate an actual living person. Regardless, she absolutely embodies Lucille Ball’s voice, her manner and that real strength and assertiveness that came from succeeding as a woman in a male dominated industry. Kidman also makes some really astutely made creative choices to distinguish Lucille Ball from Lucy Ricardo, and its an important juxtaposition to make considering the gravity of what was happening to the woman behind her slapstick and wisecracking persona. What was especially impressive was the way in which Sorkin showed Lucille’s creative process and her insistence on perfection with such a logical and almost scientific process in every scene of her show. The producers pitch skits to Lucille, and each time her visualisation of how the scene would look is played out on screen in black and white, and she responds to them with a humourless affirmation or rejection of their premise. She has little time nor patience for fools, she knows exactly what it takes for her audience to laugh, and she knows that her audience isn’t stupid either and won’t forgive her for treating them like children. Seeing her work on a dinner scene with the other actors in the “I Love Lucy Show” and the backs and forths of whether there should be flowers on the table for dinner was such a fun and immersive way of demonstrating how Lucille Ball approached her work. In the same way in which a biopic about a singer needs to have plenty of footage of them actually singing, it would have felt unfair if a film about Lucille Ball didn’t showcase what exactly made her so talented as a performer.

Beyond Kidman’s performance and Lucille Ball’s story, this film is a really interesting depiction of the entertainment industry in the 1950s. The whole issue surrounding the depiction of pregnant women was fascinating, and I liked that Sorkin took time to show entire conversations between the studio executives, Lucille Ball and Desi and the reasonings behind the unusually harsh network censorship in post war American television. The production design and costumes are seamless, and the supporting performances from Arnes, Simmons and Vance are pitch perfect. The issue of the widespread fear of the “Red Menace” and the threat of Communism was handled well, and interesting to observe in the twenty first century where the inverse is true and conservative leaning actors are often blacklisted or intimidated due to the overwhelmingly progressive politics of modern Hollywood. I doubt that the film intended this as a cautionary tale, but it was interesting to observe nonetheless.

“Being the Ricardos” is an intelligent and sleekly crafted piece of Sorkin brilliance. Kidman has demonstrated again why she is considered up there with Hollywood’s best and the film has again shed a light on a property which I certainly had little exposure to. That’s what I like about films like this; where they’re done well, they can inspire a new audience from an entirely different generation to appreciate something which may have otherwise been left forgotten.

By Jock Lehman

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