There are few places the writer-director Aaron Sorkin understands better than the set, writer’s room, and production offices of a weekly television series. He has written many such shows himself, at least three of them explicitly about the process of creating TV. In the witty and swift-moving biopic Being the Ricardos (in theaters on Friday and streaming on Prime Video starting Dec. 21), Sorkin puts some of this insider knowledge to work in exploring the politics—global, sexual, and professional—behind the scenes of the smash 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy.
Most of the events touched on in Being the Ricardos really happened, though not on the compressed one-week timeline Sorkin imagines, moving from I Love Lucy’s Monday morning table read through its Friday afternoon taping before a live studio audience. In the part of the storyline involving real-world politics, Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) has just been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to explain why, 20 years before, she checked a box on a voter registration form identifying herself as a Communist. Lucy later explains to her husband and co-star Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) that she had checked the box as a tribute to the left-wing grandfather who raised her from an early age, but she had never attended meetings or subscribed to any particular political ideology.
As a Cuban refugee whose family’s house was burned down by Communist rebels, Arnaz is not thrilled at his wife’s professed sympathy for the working man, but he stands by her as nervous executives at CBS wait to see how the papers treat the news of Ball’s testimony. But the tabloids are more interested in covering rumors of the Cuban-American bandleader-turned-actor’s infidelity—rumors he denies to his wife with ever-less-plausible excuses, even though the two clearly both love one another and respect each other’s performance skills and business acumen.
By the mid-’50s Ball and Arnaz were among the most powerful people at CBS, a position Sorkin delineates in a few crackling boardroom scenes early on. When she discovered she was pregnant with their second child, the couple had the unprecedented and, as it turned out, history-making idea to write her pregnancy into the show. (While it wasn’t the first American sitcom to incorporate a woman’s pregnancy, it was the most prominent to do so.) This acknowledgement of female biological reality struck terror into the hearts of the network’s top brass, ever fearful of the approval of their corporate sponsors. After the royal couple of the small screen threatened to walk out on their contract, the story arc was allowed to be written in, on the grounds that the filthy word pregnant never be spoken. In the meeting where this policy is hammered out, Arnaz and Ball seem both agog and amused at their bosses’ blinkered male chauvinism. Asked what she means when she says she is 12 weeks along, Ball fixes the executive question with her long-lashed, slightly pop-eyed gaze and elaborates: “Twelve weeks ago I fucked my husband.”
[Read: What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Being the Ricardos]
Nicole Kidman, not a performer known for her pratfalls and spit takes, would seem to be oddly cast as the nothing-if-not-physical comedienne. When the news of her casting broke last year, there was a collective eye-roll from the internet: Really, with all the talented women currently working in comedy? Aside from Will and Grace’s Debra Messing, a self-professed Lucille Ball stan and the actress most widely proposed as an alternate, what about Kathryn Hahn, or Pamela Adlon, or Kristen Wiig, or hell, Joan Cusack?
But Kidman turns out, at least in the parts of the film that don’t try to reproduce Ball’s on-air performance style, to have been an excellent choice for the part. In a performance that’s full of dry humor—many of the script’s sharpest barbs are given to Ball—she captures the comedy legend’s slightly hoarse voice, her combination of doll-like beauty and earthy physicality, and the imperious manner for which she was sometimes known offstage. Only in the few black-and-white scenes that replicate moments from I Love Lucy does Kidman’s body language feel misjudged. Perhaps in an attempt to make the point that Ball’s lovably ditzy character was a … construct of the patriarchy? Or something?—she plays these moments with a curious marionette-like stiffness, as if Lucy had become a character from commedia dell’arte. Kidman is a master at switching between emotional registers, but not even she can crack the code of how to transform into something as rare as a born onscreen clown.
An exacting perfectionist with a big ego, Ball is reputed to have been hard to work with, and the movie pulls no punches on that score. Several plot threads involve her undermining her colleagues, especially female colleagues, on the show. Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), who played Lucy’s neighbor and sidekick Ethel Mertz, makes no secret of feeling insulted by the show’s constant jokes about her character’s weight and unattractiveness, and she gets no sympathy from her onscreen husband and usually drunken castmate William Frawley (J.K. Simmons, displaying his customary sublime timing). The lone, unappreciated woman in the writer’s room, played by Alia Shawkat as a young woman and Linda Lavin as an older one (now there’s a nice piece of casting), objects to the way her male counterparts try to infantilize or dumb down the character of Lucy, though as long as she keeps getting laughs, Ball herself doesn’t generally mind.
An interwoven storyline cuts back to the time a few years earlier when Ball and Arnaz met on the set of a middling RKO musical called Too Many Girls, embarked on a passionate affair, and eloped soon after. The production and costume design in this section are a wonder, and the film’s portrait of late-1940s Hollywood, as the film industry was being undone and remade by the growth of television, is sharply if too briefly sketched. But the scenes of Desi and Lucille falling in love on various movie backlots or the dance floors of Latin nightclubs feel pat and overfamiliar, especially in comparison with the snappy show-business repartee of the 1950s-era scenes.
To its credit, the earlier-set timeline does give Bardem a chance to strut his stuff as a limelight-loving Cuban bandleader. He sings a few numbers, including Arnaz’s band’s signature song “Babalú,” with pretty good pitch and no small degree of suave, self-deprecating charm. I can’t speak to the issues raised by casting a Spaniard to play a Cuban, but the warmth and sensuality Bardem radiates at the mic captures a part of the reason that, as Ball wrote in her posthumously published memoir Love, Lucy, “I might as well admit here and now I fell in love with Desi wham, bang! in five minutes. There was only one thing better than looking at Desi, and that was talking to him.”
Being the Ricardos is primarily concerned not with Red Scare politics or the history of the de-stigmatization of small-screen pregnancy, but with the dysfunctional work-life balance of the Arnaz-Ball marriage. Sorkin lets us see the ways the two support each other professionally even as, on the intimate domestic level, their relationship breaks down. Among the film’s best-written scenes are the ones where we see Ball driving her cast and crew members nuts with her relentless perfectionism, in an apparent play to make up for her manifestly imperfect life at home. As I Love Lucy’s beleaguered and disrespected showrunner, Jess Oppenheimer, Tony Hale gets a part with more dramatic heft than he’s often given. He’s especially moving in a late scene where he finally confronts Ball with the years of systematic mistreatment he has endured in front of his own crew.
Up to and not including a bizarre late twist involving longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover as an incongruous deus ex machina, Being the Ricardos is a well-acted, cleverly written, and often very funny snapshot of a pivotal time in mid-20th-century political and cultural history. Sorkin will always shine more as a writer than as a director. Handsomely appointed though it is, Being the Ricardos is of no real visual interest. It is filmed, perhaps fittingly for the subject matter, like a TV show. But on the heels of a Sorkin movie, The Trial of the Chicago 7, whose women were essentially hippie-styled set dressing, it’s a pleasure to see him putting some of his signature quips in the mouths of female characters, especially one as spiky, complicated, and powerful as Lucille Ball.