‘The more things you do, the more you can do,’ said Lucille Ball in her starring role as Lucy Ricardo in I Love Lucy. Premiering in October 1951 on CBS, the monumental show immediately rose in popularity at a time when suburban life was rapidly becoming the focus of American pop culture. By 1952, every week just under 11,055,000 were tuning in to watch I Love Lucy, with the Nielson ratings indicating that it was the most viewed show in the United States for four of its six-years running. The nation fell in love with Lucy Ricardo, as the witty yet cutesy TV housewife, alongside her equally comedic husband Ricky, played by her real-life husband Desi Arnaz. They became the embodiment of American idealism, the golden couple of the world of television. Behind the scenes, this was far from the truth.
Writer-director Aaron Sorkin attempts to contextualise what is still considered the most influential sitcom in television history, however his execution provides us with little more than a detached series of narratives served over the course of a week. It’s 1952, and while I Love Lucy enjoys peak popularity, allegations tying Lucille Ball to the Communist Party USA in her youth threaten to end her career. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HCUA) assesses her historic connection to the party as the film progresses, and Lucille’s impending fear of news spreading remains until the end of the film. Sorkin does not stop there. The week is dramatised further, as Lucy’s pregnancy causes logistical issues among producers of the show, while gossip papers run stories of Desi’s infidelity. There is almost too much happening, as both Lucille’s career and marriage seem to be crumbling. On top of this, the unsettling flashback scenes, which offer us a glimpse into Ball and Arnaz’s backstory, seem to confirm that their relationship was doomed from the start in a somewhat cliché stardom way – their struggle to simultaneously navigate their careers and remain together is a concept that has been recycled in Hollywood history time and time again. In addition to flashback sequences, there are several present-time interviews of the original I Love Lucy producers including Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr. Unfortunately, these “flash forwards” serve little purpose than to summarise what we are already watching unfold. Sorkin’s narrative pandemonium is frankly tiring, and a tad too ambitious for a two-hour film. There are several things, however, that redeem the film.
After watching the film once, one may wonder why Sorkin wrote an entire film about Lucille Ball at all. It is only after understanding the interesting discrepancies he makes between Lucille, and her character, Lucy Ricardo, that we begin to understand his intentions. Lucy Ricardo was written as a naïve wife and failed actress. Lucille Ball, on the other hand, is “the queen of showbusiness.” Sorkin perfectly draws a line between Ball and her character in a way that reminds us as the audience that we are watching Lucille’s life unfold, not Lucy’s. The gloomy offices and soundstages add to this effect. Lucille is an artist, and there are several segments of the film that display how she sees a particular scene or episode playing out in her head. She is also a pioneer, as substantiated by her radical suggestion to incorporate her pregnancy into I Love Lucy during a time when this was taboo in the television industry. Furthermore, while she is fine with being portrayed as “dumb” in her show for comedic effect, she refuses to be labelled this in real life. Upon trying to squash her Communist Party scandal, Arnaz proposes he tell the audience that ‘she ticked the wrong box’, however Lucille immediately shuts him down. Sorkin’s subtle but powerful characterisation of Lucille in these key scenes is nothing but intentional. It is a shame that this is difficult to recognise amongst the confusing structure of the film.
Though Sorkin may have delved into Ball’s character, he largely jettisons Desi Arnaz in a film that one assumes should have been about him too. Arnaz is Cuban-American, while Lucille is all-American, and there are certainly some scenes that address the difficulties of being an interracial couple during the 1950s (they were, in fact, the first interracial couple to appear on television in the United States). Ball has to put her foot down in front of a series of producers about her Cuban-American husband being on the show, which they eventually concede to. However, Sorkin does not explore how I Love Lucy utilised Desi’s Cuban upbringing as a source of the programme’s humour. Producers used linguistic manipulation to create multilingual humour: jokes about Desi’s accent, Lucy’s sarcastic comments about her husband’s Spanish, and Ricky’s confusion about the logic of Lucy’s English. Such manipulation provided both bilingual and monolingual audiences with a humour that was unique to I Love Lucy, and this would have been an interesting take to consider. Nonetheless, Sorkin focuses a fair amount on Desi and Lucille’s deteriorating marriage through the extended metaphor of the “home”. When the two first meet, Ball tells him of her wish for a real home, which is later juxtaposed by Desi’s character shouting ‘Lucy, I’m home!’ during a rehearsal. Ball admits that she wanted him on the show so that he could continue to love her, even if it was just on set – ‘it’s still a lot more than most people get’, she says. Lucille has staged her home in an effort to save her marriage, but at the cost of her dream. It is a beautiful interpretation of their relationship.
Being the Ricardos certainly had potential. Not only could it have personified heroine Lucille Ball as a driving force in the transformation of television, but also captured more thoroughly Lucy and Desi’s relationship throughout a scandalous week. The excessive flashback scenes sadly take away from the main narrative and leave behind a disjointed feel to the film. Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem make up for what the film lacks, though their performances during the dramatic scenes are significantly better (Kidman’s experience with slapstick seems rather forced at times), while the set itself does a great job of maintaining the “behind the scenes” feel Sorkin desires. Still, it is a film that is worth seeing solely for the purpose of being transported back into an I Love Lucy era.
Written by Kat Jivkova
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