Contrary to many people’s beliefs, not every piece of drama with Aaron Sorkin’s name has the incomparably timed, exquisitely percussive sound of I-top-you-no-I top-you fighting pattern known as Sorkinese. The “American president” had a sweet flow to him in a way. “The social network” was as supple of the formative technology culture as “All the President’s Men” was in the media politics of the ’70s. And while many may disagree, I thought Sorkin in “The Trial of the Chicago 7” did a remarkable job of grabbing the individual voices of the radical celebrity’s counterculture brigade.
But “Being the Ricardos”, his film about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (played to perfection by Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem), is very much an intoxicating portion of Sorkinese – and a beautiful illustration of what can be intoxicating about it. The entire film takes place during a pressure cooker week during the filming of CBS sitcom “I Love Lucy”. It’s 1952, the series is in its second season (there have been a total of 37 episodes), and it’s the most popular program in America with 60 million viewers every Thursday night. It’s also a revolutionary show: the first to use the three-camera recording system that would allow sitcoms to be filmed live in the future; and also a mainstream TV comedy about a cross-cultural marriage, starring two actors who, in playing Lucy and Ricky Ricardo (it was implied), portrayed a stylized version of themselves.
“Being the Ricardos” opens on a fast-paced series of fake documentary interviews with last-day versions of several of the characters – a powerful technique that Sorkin borrows from Bob Fosse from “Star 80” and “Lenny” and uses just as effectively. These excerpts set the stage for a week where more things happened than anyone could have thought. At home with the heated, whip-wise Lucy and the desperate Cuban dynamo Desi, the drama emerges. A story is about to be published in the gossip magazine Confidential, describing a long night of infidelity spent by Desi. But the picture on the front page, of Desi sitting next to a smiling woman, was actually taken the summer before, at an event that Lucy was at. So maybe the story is completely hot air.
Just as Lucy and Desi have a feverishly enthusiastic round of make-up sex (something the film suggests happened quite a lot), a radio report drops the other shoe: Lucy has in a Walter Winchell column been accused of being a communist. So far, no newspaper has covered the story. And Lucy, whose grandfather was a communist, claims there is nothing about it (her story is that she “crossed a field” on a voter registration form). But this is a time when HUAC’s power is greatest, and if the accusation sticks, Lucy and Desi’s career is history.
On top of that, this week Lucy has chosen to announce that she is pregnant. This, of course, became one of the most famous chapters in television history due to Lucy and Desi’s radical stance. Instead of turning to the network fair, which wanted to find a way to “hide” the pregnancy (like getting Lucy to shop behind giant chairs or plants), the two stars insisted on building Lucy’s pregnancy right into the sitcom -the story. The network said: Over our dead bodies.
Everything that happens in “Being the Ricardos” really happened. But it did not happen in the same week, or anything close to it, and Sorkin has by presenting it as if it did (not that he is trying to fool anyone; he has acknowledged the fictitious timeline in interviews) actually created an essential expression of the Sorbian aesthetic. The dialogue in “Being the Ricardos” has the blunt directness, dagger-white and perfectly cut corners of Sorkinese – a sound that can be described as hard Talmudic screwball. Beyond that, though, the whole film is a piece of intriguing stylized compression. It gets a real steam, a rushing energy and anxiety that runs on everything Lucy feels. And what Lucy does is take her own pent-up anxiety – over the communist indictment, but mostly over the possibility that Desi is an adulterer – and pour it into this week’s episode of “I Love Lucy.” She keeps taking over the set, directing more than the director does, fine-tuning the comedy, trying to make it all work better, trying to make it more … authentic. We see her vision as a cartoonist (and her attempt to seize the terrain of male power). But what she also does, on some level, is try to get Ricardos to be what she wants her and Desi to be. She keeps asking: What would Lucy do? What would Lucy not do? What she’s really asking is: What ought to Does Lucy?
“Being the Ricardos” is a comedy about marriage, deft and romantic, yet spun around a deathly serious suspicion that keeps eating at Lucy. It’s also the R-rated version of a workplace-as-family sitcom, with characters offending and parrying, but also cursing and saying their opinion with toxic joy. It’s a backroom drama of corporate showbiz politics that shows us how the TV sausage is made (or did in the 50s). It’s a Lucille Ball biography that shows us the movie star she almost was before she was kicked off the star track and ended up creating Lucy Ricardo’s persona. And it’s a tribute to “I Love Lucy” and all that made it a fun culture-changing touchstone, and also a deconstruction of “I Love Lucy.” Not everything in “Being the Ricardos” happened in a week, but some of what the film captures about the live-wire fish bowl in 50s TV is that it feels as it could have.
The film is built around the making of this week’s episode, and from the moment everyone sits down at the first table and reads, Sorkin sets a tone of high-minded evil, where these TV veterans are too wordy and successful not to say, what they think. JK Simmons has a field day like William Frawley, the vaudeville veteran who played the humble Fred Mertz, who Simmons makes 10 times as much of a curmudgeon outside the camera as he is on – he’s a scornful chicken hen who likes to nibble whiskey at dive bars 10am, and whose favorite pastime is finding new ways to insult her colleague, Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda). But Simmons is such a cunning dog that he obviously keeps peeling the character out. Under the mad loner there is a nostalgic relic of Old Hollywood, a caustic witty observer and on some level a real human being.
Nina Arianda, like Vivian, is just as indelible. She shows us how the effervescent Vivian longed to break out of the stupidity that is in her role as Ethel, a character married to her grandfather (as she puts it), and she brilliantly reveals how it cuts Vivian in time when she gets to know her. new diet is being monitored by everyone on the show, from Lucy onwards – because she should not deviate too far from the ideal of American “normality.”
Yet it is Kidman and Bardem’s dance that gives “Being the Ricardos” its light but melted magic. I walked into the movie without being able to put Nicole Kidman and Lucille Ball together in my head. But here’s how good Kidman is. As the sitcom’s Lucy, she’s perfect, and she copes with the storm and pops double recordings, the blaring voice, the whole way Lucy Ricardo was silly with no invisible trickiness – a form of passive aggression. The sitcom moments, in black and white, are presented almost like dreams. But outside the camera, Kidman portrays Lucille Ball as the brass glamor she was. She makes Lucy sensual and demanding, stinging and loving, with an ability to read space – an epitome of modern woman who was stuck in the role of always trying to pull the rest of the world to catch up with her.
The film tells Lucy’s story in flashbacks that go back to her days as an RKO contract player, where she met Desi on the set of “Too Many Girls”. And we see the moment when the possibility of star status flickered for her. “The Big Street” (1942), in which she starred alongside Henry Fonda, becomes a hit with critics and acts respectfully in the box office, and when she meets with the production manager at RKO, Charles Koerner (Brian Howe), it’s a classic scene that speaks dark volumes about Hollywood – then and now. Kidman’s concluding line is one of the three most exquisite readings of Sorkinese I have ever heard.
As “Being the Ricardos” presents it, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had a rocky showbiz marriage. They adored each other, but their careers drew them from the beginning – there is a touching moment where they meet after 6 p.m. 04:00 on Mulholland Drive, because that’s when Desi escapes from her nightclub show at Ciro’s, and this is where she’s on her way. in hair and make-up. Bardem makes Desi a maestro who knows how to throw his weight around; it’s exciting to see him bump into network leaders and threaten them – like when he goes over their heads to appeal to the chairman of the board of Philip Morris, the sponsor of “I Love Lucy,” about the pregnancy plotline. But Desi, while a charming actor and a forward-thinking entrepreneur, is not as advanced a husband. He loves Lucy, but what that love means to him is that he expects to be loved in a certain way and enjoy certain freedoms. Like his evenings getting more voluminous. Does he really spend all of them on a boat playing cards?
There are anachronisms in “Being the Ricardos” – no one said “God it!” At the time. as they do now. There are also sharp observations about how the comedy on “I Love Lucy” worked and what it meant, as the scene where Lucy and the series’ only female screenwriter, Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat), improvises the famous Lucy-trampling-grape scene , topped off by the fact that Lucy lost an earring. Lucy was a clown expressing an ancient inner world that women could see themselves in. Outside the camera, Lucy from “Being the Ricardos” keeps pushing the show to get better, and that means closer to something real. She was an entertainment visionary who, Sorkin suggests, also tried to perfect her home away from home. She succeeded, perhaps too well.