Every year around this time, a fresh crop of prestige biopics and docudramas arrives to resurrect an old debate: when an actor is playing a real person, what defines a quality portrayal? Is it totally about their ability to capture the essence of an individual in the context of the story that is being told, or is there a necessity for the performer to utterly disappear physically and turn invisible in their depiction – perhaps allowing the audience to believe that they are watching archive footage? The fact that this discussion is annually perpetuated by different projects taking different tactics suggests that there is no genuine answer, but in 2021, Aaron Sorkin’s Being The Ricardos is adding a fantastic new wrinkle to the conversation.
The project has been at the center of light controversy since its casting stage, with some fans questioning the choices to have Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem respectively playing Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz – the argument being that there are other actors in Hollywood who physically make better doubles of the I Love Lucy stars. Actually watching the film, one does have to concede that the loud online faction was partially right, as the movie doesn’t make the overt effort to have its two principals “become” Lucy and Desi; what’s ultimately more interesting, however, is the way in which the leads discover the powerful energies of the Hollywood legends and deliver performances that create spectacular contrast between their identities in front of the camera and behind it.
Structured in part as a faux documentary, with Linda Lavin, John Rubinstein, and Ronny Cox portraying I Love Lucy writers in contemporary interviews reflecting on their time making the show, Being The Ricardos sees Aaron Sorkin specifically focus on one week in the making of the hit television series – a week earmarked by controversy. As the writers and stars go through the stages of getting a new episode up on its feet, everyone nervously waits for a major bombshell to drop, as there is a slowly circulating rumor that Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) is a communist.
To deal with the stress, Lucy throws herself into her work, taking an even more commanding role in the creative decisions than usual, but, naturally, this leads to other feathers being rustled. Lucy’s firm hand on the wheel in production challenges Desi’s (Javier Bardem) more traditional view of masculine and feminine roles – and at the same time he is fighting on her behalf to try to get her recently announced pregnancy incorporated into the plot of the show. Fights about the origins of certain ideas are endless in the writer’s room, with showrunner Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) stuck in the middle between Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll Jr. (Jake Lacy), and there is disharmony in the supporting cast as I Love Lucy co-stars Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda) and William Frawley (J.K. Simmons) have no compunction about exhibiting their dislike of one another.
Flashbacks about the origins of Lucy and Desi’s relationship and the creation of I Love Lucy add more spice to the conflict stew, creating a quite complicated gumbo, but every ingredient not only serves to heighten the drama, but also exposes the immense social complexity of the era, and the way in which Lucille Ball was constantly pulled in multiple directions as a wife, mother, and woman in a male-dominated industry.
Aaron Sorkin bites off a lot with Being The Ricardos, but he does manage to chew it.
Biopics are often sunk by their efforts to try and do too much, and Being The Ricardos takes some bold risks dancing on that line. Aaron Sorkin very much tries to have it all by focusing on a singular week-in-the-life structure and also including the flashbacks and talking heads that add history and greater context to the events. In less skilled hands, the material could have emerged a jumble, but it plays because of Sorkin’s brilliant ability to take what could be a chaos of conflict and organize it all so that each piece of drama is designed to bounce off of another.
One could make the argument that the movie is overdramatized to the point where it strains credulity and sacrifices verisimilitude – pushing together key events that didn’t really collide in a seven day span as portrayed – but it’s a choice that works when you accept the emotional truth over the factual truth in the narrative and understand it as a depiction instead of a recreation.
The storm that Aaron Sorkin whips up from true stories is orchestrated as a means of best encapsulating the lives and experiences of Lucy and Desi, and in doing so he successfully shows sides of the two performers that audiences may have never known about or even thought about. We may think of her as a clownish redhead and he as a charismatic bandleader thanks to their iconic characters, but what unfolds in Being The Ricardos adds fascinating extra dimensions to them, and it’s because of Sorkin’s specific approach.
Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem deliver unexpected and awesome turns as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
The writer/director’s call not to cover his stars in prosthetics and heavy makeup is a nice metaphorical representation of his methodology, and what completes the picture is that both Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem are both phenomenal in the film. Rather than getting audiences to be impressed/distracted by an aesthetic transformation, the stars do their roles incredible justice by nailing mannerisms and physicality – not to mention their great accent work.
They are complicated performances – if not especially because of Lucille Ball playing “Lucy” and Desi Arnaz playing “Desi” in the show within the movie – but the two Academy Award winning stars do genius work playing the different attitudes and dynamics. Nicole Kidman proves herself surprisingly adept at physical comedy, getting legitimate laughs in a recreation of an I Love Lucy gag where she goes grape-stomping at an Italian vineyard, but she is also exceptional in illustrating Ball’s genius comedic mind behind-the-scenes and her struggle dealing with the multitude of pressures in her life (such as being a model for women in Hollywood and her overwhelming desire to have a real “home”).
Being a Cuban immigrant married to a white woman in 1950s America, Desi Arnaz most certainly faced plenty of pressures of his own, and while Being The Ricardos does lean more on Lucille Ball’s story, the excellence in Javier Bardem’s turn is undeniable. He’s magnetic and charismatic in ways we’ve never seen before in the role (on the other side of the solar system from his characters in movies like No Country For Old Men, Biutiful, and Skyfall), but it’s also amazing to see him blend that charm with determination while arguing his vision for I Love Lucy with producers and network executives. It’s an awesome performance that perfectly matches Nicole Kidman’s.
After Molly’s Game and The Trial Of The Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin is in comfortable and familiar territory operating behind the scenes of a television show in Being The Ricardos, and in every way it enhances his reputation as an auteur. There are points where he can’t seem to help himself and he allows certain sequences to become overwritten – including an emotional cast gathering in the third act – but there is also an overwhelming love of the creative process demonstrated that will garner the appreciation of any film and television fan. It’s messy, but well-made, and a wonderful tribute to its subjects.