Movies

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Being the Ricardos

We break down Aaron Sorkin’s Lucille Ball biopic, starring Nicole Kidman.

Lucille Ball, in black and white, on the left, and Kidman on the right. They look very similar, though it's clear that for Kidman it required some prosthetics. In the bottom right, a logo says "Fact vs. Fiction."
Lucille Ball, left, and Nicole Kidman in Being the Ricardos, right. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images and Amazon Prime.

With Being the Ricardos, Aaron Sorkin returns to one of his two natural habitats, the television studio. (The other is the courtroom, where he spent his previous movie, The Trial of the Chicago 7.) The film looks at one turbulent week in the life of Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), the real-life couple who were the creators and stars of what was by far America’s most popular television program, I Love Lucy.

Three separate crises all happen in that one week. First, influential right-wing radio broadcaster Walter Winchell (the Rush Limbaugh of his day) declares that Lucy had told the House Un-American Activities Committee that in 1936 she had registered to vote as a Communist, a revelation that could have sunk the show’s all-American image at a time when being associated with Communism often meant professional death. Then an issue of the tittle-tattle magazine Confidential (the TMZ of its day) appears with photos showing Desi looking cozy with another woman, rocking the Arnaz’s marriage. Finally, Lucy announces she’s pregnant. Did all of this drama really happen in one week? And did J. Edgar Hoover really phone into a taping to clear Lucy’s name? Below, we’ve consulted with several articles and a couple of biographies to break it all down.

Was Lucy a Communist?

When Ball was hauled up before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee in April 1952 and again in September 1953, the evidence against her included a little more than what’s presented in the movie. They cited a 1936 affidavit of voter registration showing she had checked the box for the Communist Party, an affidavit asserting she had been a delegate of the state central committee of the Communist Party, her membership of the Committee for the First Amendment (a group of film industry heavyweights formed to support the actors and writers targeted by HUAC known as the Hollywood 10), and an allegation from a screenwriter that she had attended a Communist Party membership meeting at Ball’s house in 1937, although Ball herself was not present.*

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In her 1953 HUAC testimony, Ball told the committee she had indeed registered to vote as a Communist in 1936 but only did it to make her socialist grandfather happy (the reason she gives in the film) and that she was never an active member of the party. The committee accepted her explanation for this and the other charges, but FBI director J. Edgar Hoover maintained an open file on Ball and Arnaz even though the FBI claims that it never officially investigated her. Hoover’s desire for leverage may have had more to do with showbiz than national security, as the couple’s Desilu Productions made the TV show The Untouchables, a series that irritated Hoover profoundly (he had a team of FBI agents monitor it every week for mistakes) because it attributed several of the FBI’s most significant arrests to Eliot Ness, a Bureau of Prohibition agent. Moreover, Arnaz was making a TV show about the FBI’s arrest of gangster Ma Barker, which was in competition with a rival Warner Bros. program on which Hoover was a consultant.

Did J. Edgar Hoover Phone Into a Taping to Testify in Her Defense?

Both have dark swoopy 1950s hair and button-up shirts with the collar open
I Love Lucy writer Madelyn Pugh, left, beside Alia Shawkat as Pugh in Being the Ricardos. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images and Amazon Prime.
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When the Winchell story is picked up by newspapers, Arnaz gets the FBI director on the phone to tell the studio audience that Ball has been entirely cleared and there is no indication she was ever tainted by the dread Communism.

We couldn’t find any record of such a phone call. However, Hoover was a fan of the show, to the point of writing a letter to Ball in 1955 in which he enthused “the humor in your program last Monday, I think, exceeded any of your previous programs and they have been really good in themselves.”

Was Desi Really Cheating on Lucy?

Both men look snazzy in nice suits and slicked-back hair
Desi Arnaz, left, and Javier Bardem in Being the Ricardos, right. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images and Amazon Prime.
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In the film, Lucy sees a copy of Confidential magazine with a photo that appears to show Desi canoodling with another woman. Desi assures her it’s a made-up story and in any case the photo was taken some years ago, but Lucy won’t let it go.

In reality, Lucy had good reason for not letting it go. What the film leaves out is that this was not a one-off. Arnaz was well-known for his inveterate womanizing, both before and after his marriage. As Confidential put it, he’d “sprinkled his affections all over Los Angeles” and “proved himself an artist at philandering.” Jim Bacon, a Hollywood reporter for the Associated Press during the show’s run, told People, “The big problem with their marriage was that when Desi would get drunk, he was wild. If he was out carousing, he wouldn’t call in one whore, he’d call in 18.”

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Arnaz’s defense was just as it is in the film, that the infidelities shouldn’t be taken seriously because the women were sex workers. As Bob Weiskopf, one of the show’s writers, said, “Basically, Desi’s attitude was, ‘What the hell’s the matter? I love her. When I go out with women, they’re usually hookers. Those don’t count.’”

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[Read: Aaron Sorkin’s I Love Lucy Biopic Is Preposterous, Witty, and … Feminist?]

The marriage was always tempestuous. In the mid ’40s, Ball had initiated a divorce but the separation didn’t even last a night. Keith Thibodeaux, who played Little Ricky, recalled that “there was always tension. One time Desi Jr. and I were playing in the backyard, and they were in the guest house. We heard a lot of loud arguing and cursing and glass shattering and screaming, and we were scared. Desi Jr. turned to me and said, ‘There they go again.’ I was about 9, 10 years old.” He also remembered one instance at the Indian Wells Country Club when Lucy went to the lounge for a drink “and Desi walked in with a couple of women on his arm. When he saw Lucy at the bar, he turned around and took off.”

Did Lucy and Desi Have to Rendezvous at the Top of Mulholland Drive?

The film shows how, in the early years of their marriage, Arnaz was playing nightclubs where his Latin big band was booked, and coming home at 4 am, just as Ball was leaving for early set calls, so the couple would meet at the top of Mulholland Drive.

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This is true. Charles Pomerantz, Ball’s longtime publicist, said “before they did the series, he was a bandleader coming home at 3 or 4 in the morning. And by then she was up and on her way to makeup at RKO. She used to say, ‘We just can’t keep meeting in the Sepulveda tunnel.’”

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In fact, according to the Los Angeles Times, the couple were apart for all but three of the first 11 years of their marriage, with the pair spending “almost $30,000 on telegrams and long-distance telephone calls.”

It’s also true that, as the film suggests, Ball’s impetus for devising the show was so she could spend more time with her husband. “TV started for me just as a means of keeping my husband Desi off the road,” she told People. “He’d been on tour with his band since he got out of the Army, and we were in our 11th year of marriage and wanted to have children.”

Did Desi Revolutionize Sitcoms?

Trying to convince executive producer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) that he should share his credit with Desi, Lucy reminds Oppenheimer that Desi devised the revolutionary 3-camera system the show uses that lets the live audience see the action without cameras in the way. In reality, Arnaz didn’t design the system himself, but he recognized the need for it and hired a man—Oscar-winning cinematographer Karl Freund—who could.

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The backstory is somewhat technical, but the development had far-reaching implications. When the show started in 1951, the United States wasn’t wired for television from coast to coast, so live broadcasts could only be transmitted so far. More distant stations received kinescope copies, meaning that a movie camera aimed at a TV monitor that recorded the show, not very well. Arnaz and Ball wanted the show taped in Los Angeles so they could stay near their new baby, Lucie. But sponsor Philip Morris’s biggest cigarette market was on the East Coast, and that’s where they wanted the film-quality broadcast transmitted first. Arnaz and Freund suggested that the show be filmed with three 35mm cameras, like a stage play, which would eliminate the need for kinescope versions. This had never been used for a sitcom—although this multiple-camera setup using adjacent sets became the standard for sitcoms—and no one knew how to do it without ruining the experience for the live audience. CBS was reluctant to finance the new sets and cameras required, so Arnaz said he and Ball would take a large cut in their salaries in exchange for their company, Desilu, retaining ownership of the episodes. The resulting high-quality films meant that I Love Lucy could be syndicated in reruns—a revenue stream Desilu pioneered—with the company owning 100 percent of the huge proceeds.

Was Desi in the U.S. Army?

Defending Desi from network executives’ insinuations that Desi isn’t quite American enough to play her husband, Lucy points out that her husband served in the Army in World War II.

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This is true, sort of. Arnaz did indeed serve in the Army during that conflict and originally wanted to be an Air Force bombardier. However, during basic training, he injured his knee and was put on entertainment duty for hospitalized soldiers at California’s Birmingham General Hospital.

Was Desi’s Family Driven Out of Cuba by Bolsheviks?

Desi especially resents the charges of Communist sympathies because, he says, the Communists put his father in prison, while Lucy tells the executives Bolsheviks took all his family’s wealth.

The events are true but not the perpetrators. Arnaz came from a prominent Cuban family—his father was the mayor of Santiago de Cuba, as his great-grandfather had been, and was elected to the Cuban House of Representatives, while his mother was related to the Bacardi rum empire. The film seems to be conflating the Cuban Revolution of 1933, led by progressives, with the Cuban Revolution of 1959, led by Communists. The 1933 revolution saw a coalition of university students, labor unions, and disaffected army officers rebel against the country’s corrupt, repressive president, Gerardo Machado. In fact, Cuba’s Communist Party opposed the new government, which it considered controlled by landholding members of the bourgeoisie. Other opponents included the U.S. government, which refused to recognize the new government. However, Arnaz’s father was indeed jailed, and his three ranches, palatial home, and private island were confiscated. When he was released after six months, the family fled Cuba.

Were Vivian and Lucy Really Frenemies?

Both women have light curly hair and 1950s pencil eyebrows
I Love Lucy actress Vivian Vance, left, beside Nina Arianda as Vance in Being the Ricardos, right. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images and Amazon Prime.
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In the movie, Lucy deliberately sends Vivian Vance, who plays her on-screen best friend Ethel Mertz, a fattening breakfast, after Vance’s diet starts showing results. Vance claims that Lucy deliberately wants to make her look worse than she really does.

There is some truth in this. On the whole, Vance and Ball had a relationship of mutual respect, although in her autobiography, Ball writes that they went through a rough patch when they were both getting their divorces. However, Vance biographer Frank Castelluccio asserted that Ball wanted Vance, who was made up to look older and dumpier than she was in real life, fired from the get-go because the star was from “the old school that said you never have prettier people on the set.”

Was Lucy Not Allowed to Mention Her Pregnancy?

Both men are bald and where striped suits. The real Frawley looks a little heavier.
William Frawley, who played Fred Mertz, beside JK Simmons as Frawley in Being the Ricardos. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images and Amazon Prime.
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The film shows CBS execs and sponsors distressed to learn that Ball has become pregnant in the early part of Season 2 and decree that not only can the pregnancy not be mentioned but the star has to conceal her bump behind sofas, packages, and other large objects.

This is what happened, but Ball refused to conceal herself from the waist down and became the most prominent actress to have her pregnancy written into a TV series, although her condition was never referred to by its proper name. (It’s not true, meanwhile, that she was the first: Mary Kay Stearns’ real-life pregnancy was written into the less popular and much less remembered sitcom Mary Kay and Johnny in 1948.) Arnaz got the network to agree after he offered to get each script approved by a priest, a minister, and a rabbi. (It’s not known whether they walked into a bar).

Did All This Happen in One Week?

No. Ball’s second child, Desi Jr. was born in January 1953, the Winchell “Commie” broadcast was aired in September 1953, and the Confidential story didn’t appear until January 1955.

Correction, Jan. 4, 2022: This article originally implied that Sen. Joseph McCarthy led the House Un-American Activities Committee. McCarthy, as a senator, had no direct involvement with HUAC.

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