One September night in 1953, radio personality Walter Winchell dropped a not-so-subtle blind item that Lucille Ball was a communist. The next day, the cast and crew of Ball's hit TV show "I Love Lucy" gathered at the studios to film the next episode, uncertain whether they were actually going to go on air that week. Meanwhile, Ball and her husband Cuban-born bandleader Desi Arnaz faced conflicts with co-actors, writers, management and each other.
As a fan of popular culture, I know about "I Love Lucy" but, sad to say, what I know was only cursory general knowledge. I had only seen a few of the more famous episodes, notably "Vitameatavegemin" and "Lucy's Italian Movie," both of which were referred to in this biopic. In the few shows that I was able to watch, it was clear how Lucille Ball was a master of physical comedy, unafraid to make a fool out of herself to the delight of her audience.
However, in this new film written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, we see Lucille Ball in a very different light when she was behind the cameras. We are shown how much of strict stickler she was about the details of her show, demanding logic even for what seemed to be minor scenes. She was arguing with writers and directors, thinking and rethinking about blocking for several days before the actual shoot. Comedy was a serious matter for her.
Another serious matter for Ball was her marriage with Arnaz. She was four years older than him, and he was frequently away from home on his concert tours. Ball always emphasized that even if she was the star of their show, the final approval of all business and artistic decision lay on Arnaz, and she made sure he felt this. She would have rejected the offer to star in this TV show as Lucy if Arnaz had not been cast as her husband, Ricky Ricardo.
I felt that the main drawback to this film was the casting of the principal characters. Nicole Kidman was good as calculating Lucille Ball, but looked too icy to be quirky Lucy Ricardo. Javier Bardem tried too hard to be lively Arnaz, maybe because he really did not look like him.
As the actors playing the Ricardos' neighbors Ethel and Fred Mertz, Nina Arianda was too young to play Vivian Vance, while JK Simmons looked too fit to be William Frawley. Anyhow, you soon get used to these actors because of their commitment to their roles.
The documentary approach was a practical way for Sorkin to tell his story. The set design, the costumes and hairstyles successfully recreated the atmosphere of the 1940s to the 1950s. Those scenes about the script rehearsals and the filming before a live audience served to immerse the audience into the showbiz lifestyle.
People who knew them will find the story about this one extraordinarily stressful week in the the life of Lucy and Desi fascinating stuff, but I'm not sure about those who don't have an idea who they are.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, “Fred Said.”