Television, or streaming in today’s terms, can certainly be like a fantasy; something you imagine – or want – to be real. Personally, I watched classics like Father Knows Best, The Brady Bunch and The Waltons and envisioned growing up in that type of a family environment. I tuned into Marcus Welby, M.D. imagining that I, too, had a caring physician who made house calls. Fictional WJM in The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the perfect work environment. NBC’s Friends was the gang I wanted to hang out with when I got older (in that cool apartment, of course). And, today, I am glued to The Crown on Netflix and would certainly not mind an endless staff like that waiting on me hand and foot. Wouldn’t you?
Oh, and let’s not forget beloved I Love Lucy, which is still a daily viewing option for me because it is just plain funny and familiar; a proverbial “old shoe,” so to speak, with warm characters I enjoy spending time with. There is simply no one else like the Lucy and Ricky Ricardo and Fred and Ethel Mertz. So, when I heard that Aaron Sorkin from The West Wing fame was doing a biopic called Being The Ricardos focused on one ridiculously busy (and awful) week in the filming of an episode of I Love Lucy, I took a deep breath before watching because I knew that fantasy in my mind was about to be shattered.
It was. Very much so.
Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to meet Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance or William Frawley. I have, of course, read the endless books and heard the stories of the Lucy and Desi’s tumultuous marriage, William Frawley and Vivian Vance’s dislike for one another, and the Arnaz’ rise to power in Hollywood, amongst many other things. I spoke to personalities like Lucie Arnaz, Carol Burnett, Marie Osmond and former TCM host and film historian Robert Osborne about their experiences with Lucy. My mother even had a distant cousin, Oscar Katz, who worked with Lucy at Desilu. “Lucy is like everyone else,” he once told me. “Just wildly successful in her career.”
Of course, I knew what I saw on screen in the innocent land of I Love Lucy was far from real. Even so, I still did not expect Being The Ricardos to be so dark and bleak. Everyone was just plain miserable. And the title of the film is actually misleading because these people were nothing like the Ricardos.
On a positive note, I thought the acting in Being The Ricardos, particularly J.K. Simmons as William Frawley, was exceptional. Nicole Kidman as Lucy, Javier Bardem as Desi, and Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance also nailed it. The recreation of the I Love Lucy sets were spot on. The flashbacks to early milestones in their lives (including when Lucy and Desi first met, Lucy’s career in radio, and her insistence that Desi be cast as her husband on I Love Lucy despite his Cuban heritage) really made you feel like you were smack in that era. And, because it was a time when the country was infiltrated by a Red Scare, the fear for any actor being immediately blacklisted gave the movie the intense feel Sorkin was looking for.
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Regardless, everything just felt all too familiar…Desi cheating on Lucy, the Vivian Vance/William Frawley feud, Lucy wanting Vivian Vance to remain on the frumpier side, the fight to incorporate Lucy’s real-life pregnancy into subsequent episodes, etc. The black and white recreations of various I Love Lucy scenes (including Kidman as Lucy in the oversized vat of grapes in Italy) did not feel all that unique. Haven’t we seen this done before? And weaving documentary-style interviews with the “older” versions of I Love Lucy producers and writers Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh, and Bob Carroll Jr. (played by John Rubinstein, Linda Lavin, and Ronny Cox, respectively) was just too much considering there were already constant flashbacks throughout the film.
I also question the scene when Simmons as William Frawley takes Kidman’s Lucy to a local bar to try to give Lucy some advice because the impression I always got was that Frawley never really gave a hoot. And I wonder why the interaction between Lucy and Ariana’s Ethel was so negative. Weren’t these two supposed to be close friends in real life?
Ironically, the episode of I Love Lucy filmed in Being The Ricardos, “Fred and Ethel Fight”, is one of my least favorite half-hours in the sitcom’s six season history. After watching this film that is not about to change anytime soon.