I’m not a fan of show-business biopics, on the whole. Too often the leading actors can’t capture what made the stars they’re playing so special. Others succumb to overly familiar Hollywood storytelling tropes. Being the Ricardos is a rare exception because of two key participants: Nicole Kidman and writer-director Aaron Sorkin.
Kidman has said this was the toughest character she ever attempted to play, and it’s easy to see why. Millions of us know and, yes, love Lucille Ball. She manages to bring the actress and the woman she played so indelibly to vivid life. I “buy” her as Lucille Ball as well as her alter ego, Lucy Ricardo. She is as convincing as Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly were in Stan and Ollie, and that’s an amazing feat. (This is not to minimize Javier Bardem’s contribution as Desi Arnaz; he too is exceptionally good.)
Sorkin has dodged many pitfalls of the prototypical show-biz saga by carefully setting his parameters: the story unfolds over one week’s time as a new episode of I Love Lucy is prepared and shot. It is an unusually eventful week, but flashbacks round out the story of Lucy and Desi and give the main plotline a welcome context.
My chief complaint about Being the Ricardos is that it runs too long. I wasn’t checking my watch, but I was all too aware of lulls; a tighter film would have been more effective.
My other, admittedly minor, quarrel is an unexplained anachronism that stands out like neon a darkened room. In a scene set in 1942, Lucille Ball complains to her boss at RKO that she never gets a shot at the juicy parts played by Crawford or Hayworth or…Judy Holliday. Never mind that Rita Hayworth was still on the cusp of true stardom that year; Judy Holliday wouldn’t make her film debut until 1949! Lucy takes a swipe at her in another dialogue exchange in which she belittles her credentials as a funny woman.
Why arbitrarily put a blatant error in the midst of an otherwise factual movie? Most non-film buffs won’t notice, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who did.
But enough negativity: Being the Ricardos is an insightful portrait of a woman who struggled through a humdrum film career until fate—and her savvy Cuban husband—gave her the part she was born to play in a TV series that became a landmark in our popular culture.
Nicole Kidman is made up to look, superficially, like Lucy, but it’s the sound of her voice that sells the masquerade. She sounds like Lucille Ball, whether she’s re-enacting a famous episode from the television show (reproduced in square-screen black & white) or talking about a scene that isn’t playing believably to her way of thinking and refusing to move on.
The supporting cast is strong and persuasive, beginning with Bardem and continuing with J.K. Simmons as William Frawley and Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance. But the beauty of this homage is how convincing it is at dramatizing a headline-making incident in the life and career of its primary subject. And as fanciful as it may seem, that didn’t come from Aaron Sorkin’s imagination. It’s absolutely true.