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Sorkin gets it wrong in Lucy biopic

Audrey Kupferberg pointing out some of her favorite Hollywood movie posters in her home in 2021.
Jackie Orchard

Being the Ricardos, the latest entertainment to blend truth with fiction in ways confusing to viewers, is screening in theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Being the Ricardos takes viewers into the inner workings of I Love Lucy in the early 1950s. Lucille Ball’s involvement with the Communist Party has just gone public. It is the Red Scare of the McCarthy years, so the show’s creators are worried. Will the popular series be cancelled? What’s more, Ball, Mrs. Desi Arnaz in real life, is pregnant.

Considering the morality of early television censorship, will a pregnant woman be able to appear on America’s TV screens? Can the word “pregnant” even be spoken? Clearly, TV series throughout the fifties focused on nuclear families, but it was taboo to even hint at the fact that the parents had sex in order to have families… in order to give birth to Beaver and Wally Cleaver; Kathy, Bud, and Betty Anderson, and Ricky and David Nelson.

These are interesting points which could form the basis of a powerful script, but Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay is sprawling and full of inaccuracies. He doesn‘t appear to know his subjects well.

Sorkin has been criticized over the years for writing his female characters in an anemic way. Here, too, lead character Lucille Ball, as portrayed by Nicole Kidman, is given dialog that is flat. When she converses with other women who are her friends as well as close colleagues, such as actress Vivian Vance and writer Madelyn Pugh, there is no warmth, no sense of intimacy. The make-up Kidman wears gives her face a waxen look with no smile lines and a frozen response to emotional set-tos with Desi and other dramatic upheaval.

Javier Bardem plays Desi Arnaz, and he is terrific in the role. Whether he is performing “Cuban Pete” with his conga drum or having high-level meetings with sponsors, he is on point. In truth, Desi was six years younger than Lucy. With Kidman’s odd make-up, she appears more than ten years his junior.

Sorkin’s inaccuracies concerning Ball’s Communist connections already have been listed by various journalists. No need to repeat. I will list the mistakes in the script that relate to film and TV history. My late husband Rob Edelman and I co-authored a book called Meet the Mertzes, a double biography of Vivian Vance and William Frawley. We conducted extensive research and interviewed many people who worked on I Love Lucy. While the character of William Frawley, as played by J.K. Simmons, starts out as an apt representation of this anti-social, out-of-touch, ill-spirited drinker; as the movie goes along, Frawley is shown to have a humanist streak. His conversations with Ball seem almost warm. Baloney!

Sorkin adds a conversation about the infantilization of Lucy Ricardo, a topic of concern since the women’s lib movement of the 1970s, hardly a major issue in the early fifties.

In a flashback, Lucy is excited to tell Desi that she won the lead in the RKO feature The Big Street. She says she got the part by default due to scheduling problems of greater movie stars Rita Hayworth and Judy Holliday. Now The Big Street is a noir drama from 1942, and I recommend it to Lucile Ball fans. But Judy Holliday did not become a movie star till 1950. Desi’s film debut in Too Many Girls, is put down as bad. It isn’t bad; it’s delightful. I also recommend that Lucy fans screen Dance, Girl, Dance, directed by Dorothy Arzner, from 1940. These films give evidence of the powerful talents of Ball and Arnaz which would lead them to create one of TV history’s most popular sitcoms.

Sorkin has had such a depth of understanding when creating works such as The West Wing and The Social Network, but he has less-than-a-firm grasp over various issues and details in Being the Ricardos.

Audrey Kupferberg is a retired film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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