Monday, December 13, 2021

A Marriage Inside a Marriage: Being the Ricardos

Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem in Being the Ricardos.

I’ve always thought that you can’t predict when the talented, wildly erratic Nicole Kidman will settle down in a role and truly make it her own. But, watching her as Lucille Ball in writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s smashing Being the Ricardos, I realized that there is one constant in her career: she’s always convincing when she plays a real-life character. Her portrayal of the journalist Martha Gellhorn in Philip Kaufman’s TV movie Hemingway and Gellhorn (with Clive Owen as Hemingway) was a revelation: she seemed to locate the Barbara Stanwyck side of herself. As the broadcaster Gretchen Carlson in Bombshell, she combined glamor, bristling intelligence and the sort of vulnerability you always expected in the sex-bomb roles she played early in her career but that came across only erratically. (Probably because she was miscast in them: her Marilyn Monroe-ish looks were deceptive – she was no wounded sex kitten. Thrown together, the parts came out wrong.) And in the overlooked Lion, based on Saroo Brierley’s memoir, she was heartbreaking as the white adoptive mother of Indian boys, one of them damaged, whose self-destructiveness drives her into her own psychic darkness.

She may never have been better than she is in Being the Ricardos, playing opposite Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz. Lucy is a hard-boiled doll in a backstage high comedy, and Kidman navigates both these genres: she’s earthy and whip-smart, sharp-edged and tender. As Sorkin has written her, Lucy’s greatest gift is also her Achilles’ heel – her perceptiveness. She has X-ray vision: she sees through everything. She knows precisely what makes an experienced television director (Christopher Denham) hired for an episode of I Love Lucy a hack: “He doesn’t understand the moving parts of physical comedy.” She has an unerring sense of how far a script for the show can venture into the ridiculous and precisely when it crosses the line into implausibility – that Lucy Ricardo may be a loon, but if her husband Ricky slips into the room and throws his hands over her eyes, she isn’t dippy enough not to recognize him. Her iron-bound insistence on some stylized variant on emotional realism for her character, her perfectionism and her merciless honesty make her difficult to work with and for, but in Sorkin’s view they also make her admirable – hardly a surprise in the man who gave us The West Wing and last year’s knockout movie The Trial of the Chicago 7. And she looks at Desi, whom she still adores, and the state of their marriage with clear eyes and an inability to delude herself, even as she makes desperate attempts to save it by elevating his self-esteem, begging the head writer and show runner producer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) to share executive producing credit with him.  Desi comes home more and more infrequently; he claims that he goes out to play cards and simply sacks out afterwards on their boat – that he’s remained faithful. (Ball finally sued for divorce in 1960.)

Being the Ricardos has an extraordinarily complicated structure. It centers on one week, at the peak of I Love Lucy’s success (the show ran from 1951 to 1957) when gossip is running rampant about the fissures in the couple’s marriage; when Lucy and Desi announce to CBS and the sponsor, Philip Morris, that she’s expecting their second child and they insist on breaking the taboo and making the pregnancy a topic on the show; and when columnist Walter Winchell accuses Ball of Communist leanings. At the same time they’re preparing what turns out to be a troublesome weekly episode. These intersecting dramas are framed by a series of interviews, conducted years later, apparently for a documentary, with older versions of Oppenheimer (John Rubinstein) and his co-writers Bob Carroll (Ronny Cox) and Madelyn Pugh (Linda Lavin). Some of Maddie Pugh’s commentary leads us into a second set of flashbacks to Lucy and Desi’s courtship, which began on the set of Too Many Girls, the Rodgers and Hart musical that M-G-M made an uninspired movie of, with Arnaz repeating his Broadway role, in 1940; into the early days of their marriage, when she was a contract player and his band was touring around the country; and to two key moments in her pre-television career. First M-G-M drops her contract, despite the good reviews she’s generated in a rare starring role, opposite Henry Fonda in The Big Street; then, while she’s starring in My Favorite Husband on radio, CBS offers to turn it into a television comedy series and she maneuvers her way into getting the network to let Desi co-star, a move that makes him the first Latino with a major role on TV. Sorkin keeps the action moving on all fronts, his trademark speedball dialogue maintaining a breakneck speed. The movie is tremendously enjoyable, the way Hollywood movies were in the thirties; you can feel your brain buzzing as you take it all in. The charge the actors are obviously getting from reading that wonderful dialogue – and from playing smart, articulate characters – is infectious. And they respond by giving uniformly splendid performances.

Bardem is charming, with just a hint of danger. He has a fine moment just this side of an explosion when Jess Oppenheimer gives Arnaz a forced compliment that he reads – correctly – as condescension. (And there’s a bonus treat: we get to see him sing the irresistible “She Could Shake the Maracas” from Too Many Girls.) He and Kidman play together marvelously: they’re very sexy, and they make the Ball-Arnaz marriage, with its accumulated wrinkles, seem effortlessly authentic. Impeccably cast, J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda play Bill Frawley and Vivian Vance, who banter like seasoned vaudeville comics. Frawley is a controlled drunk – he’s never soused on the set – whose profane wit is one of the elements that keep the show crew grounded. Vance is insecure about her tendency to overweight and acutely conscious of the limitations of being a second banana. In one prickly, layered scene, she confronts Lucy – they’re close friends – with undermining her efforts to lose some of that weight, which does indeed link up with Ball’s vision of the way the series goes and in her mind should continue. Sorkin has given Simmons an exchange with Kidman that doesn’t work as well, where Bill tells Lucy that she’s emasculating Desi; it’s one of those scenes Sorkin sometimes tumbles into where he can’t resist the temptation to overexplicate. (There’s another one, later, between Lucy and Jess.)  Rubinstein, Cox and especially Lavin execute their frame-story monologues expertly, and Alia Shawkat shines as the younger Maddie, the only woman in the writers’ room. Maddie protests to Lucy that she struggles to keep Lucy Ricardo from looking dumb, and though that may be accurate, this sliver of 1950s proto-feminism is the sole detail that feels tacked on for a twenty-first-century audience.

If you love movies and plays that unpack the theatrical process, then this movie will be catnip for you. It sure was for me, especially the scenes where Ball pinpoints the flaws in the writing and staging and improves on them. I don’t think anyone has ever done this kind of writing better than Sorkin does here. Aside from the scenes I indicated above, there’s very little in the film that doesn’t work. I wasn’t wild about Jordan Cronenweth’s hazy lighting or Daniel Pemberton’s score, and the last section isn’t quite as satisfying, perhaps, as it needs to be. It’s set up as a sort of game of three-card monte, and it’s certainly deft, but maybe it’s too carefully programmed – while Sorkin keeps control of the structure, he seems to lose control of the tone, and the air goes out of it at the end. But these are quibbles. Being the Ricardos it’s one of the few movies I’ve seen all year that engages both your brain and your emotions.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.  

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