While the world seems to be spinning out of control, Hollywood seems to reach further and further back into the past for ideas and inspiration; writer and director Aaron Sorkin feels that comedy icon Lucille Ball is the most urgent subject that he could possibly address in 2021. Ball’s heyday was in the 1950’s, and that’s a world in some way removed from where we are now; nevertheless, Sorkin makes a good case for why we should spend a couple of hours looking into what made Ball tick.
Played by Nicole Kidman in an empathetic, awards-ready performance that goes far beyond imitation, Lucille Ball is a tough cookie in the world of television; after struggling as an actress, she made it big in radio, and managed to translate that into a hit television show that reached 60 million people every week. But when we join her story, Ball has problems; she’s pregnant, and the network won’t even allow the word ‘pregnant’ to be used on the programme, never mind allow her to continue in the role of Lucy; the fragile morals of America are at stake. Her husband, Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) is also a worry; he’s been staying out late, or not coming home at all, and Lucille Ball is beginning to wonder if he’s having an affair. And then the newspapers add a final element to the perfect storm; could America’s favourite actress be a secret communist sympathiser?
Being The Ricardos is something of a steep-curve education in terms of Ball, who on this evidence was a remarkable tough-nut who faced down the kind of personal issues that would send most stars scurrying to rehab. With a gruelling schedule of shows to navigate, and meetings with supercilious tv execs, Ball has her work cut out to keep her ship afloat, and yet Sorkin and Kidman do an admirable job of showing how she carved a unique role for women in a man’s world. Contrasting the serious trials of Ball with the cartoon domesticity of Lucy is remarkable in itself, but Sorkin also plays up the creative input she had into the show’s visual comedy set-pieces, and the result is that Ball is an invigorating character to watch.
There’s been plenty of boring, worthy movies about the important subject of McCarthyism, but despite some lugubrious use of talking-head interviews to underline why this story is important now, Sorkin generally uses his gift for punchy dialogue to keep the rapid-fire narrative entertaining in its own right. He’s the kind of writer you’d love to see address the political now, rather than the fading past of Steve Jobs or the Chicago 7, yet Being the Ricardos feels like a passion project for him. That Being the Ricardos works so well as drama vindicates his choice; the wide-eyed vision of Lucille Ball makes for a highly entertaining slice of behind-the-scenes intrigue, and audiences are likely to appreciate the depth of the acerbic script and Kidman’s luminous performance.
Being the Ricardos is out now on Amazon Prime in the UK and US.