‘Being the Ricardos’: Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem nail it

We learn that Lucille Ball was nothing like the buffoon she played every week. She was a shrewd businesswoman

Being the Ricardos official poster

Credit: Prime Video/YouTube

I was a bit skeptical about Being the Ricardos. Casting Nicole Kidman as legendary comedienne Lucille Ball (1911-1989) seemed wrong. Kidman is an icy blonde and she was fine when she played another legend and another icy blonde: Grace Kelly. To have Kidman play the ditzy redhead who ruled American television in the 1950s seemed like a big mistake.

It turned out I was mistaken. In Being the Ricardos, Kidman didn’t play the Lucille Ball we’re familiar with. She showed us what Lucille Ball was really like.

The Ricardos in the title refer to Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, the name of the lovable married couple in  Lucille Ball’s classic sitcom, I Love Lucy. As played by her and her then husband Desi Arnaz, the Ricardos usually had a hilarious misadventure.

Viewers can familiarize themselves with this wholesome show on YouTube, where a few episodes are uploaded. Admittedly, today’s audiences may find it dated (read: no sexual innuendos).  But rest assured I Love Lucy isn’t nearly as dated as today’s Pinoy sitcoms.

Lucille and Desi weren’t just the stars of the show, they also produced it. They were the original Hollywood power couple. The production company they owned, Desilu Studios, went on to produce other successful TV shows, from Star Trek and Mannix to Mission: Impossible.

I tried to read everything I could about Lucille Ball, and what I learned was she was nothing like the buffoon she played every week. She was a shrewd businesswoman, and she had to be steel-willed to survive in a cutthroat industry. She knew her craft well and could sense if the director wasn’t qualified to direct her. She was also painfully blunt towards her guest stars. She infuriated Richard Burton when she complained about his limited comedic chops. She even intimidated Joan Crawford!

Painfully blunt, she infuriated Richard Burton when she complained about his limited comedic chops

One can have a glimpse of the real Lucille, also on YouTube. She did a handful of guest stints on the late-night show circuit. She wasn’t funny or spontaneous, and was somewhat reserved. She also lacked warmth. Physical comedy was her art and she excelled in it. But she wasn’t a delightful wit. Watching her be herself in an unscripted universe was like meeting your girlfriend’s disapproving mother for the first time.

This was the Lucille Ball Nicole Kidman played in Being the Ricardos. Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Trial of the Chicago 7),  it isn’t exactly a biography. It centers on a turning point in her life in 1952. I Love Lucy was at its zenith, though it was at this time when it suddenly stood on shaky ground. The infamous McCarthy communist witch-hunt was ongoing, and Lucille became a target. Being labeled  a communist was going to ruin her career. Aggravating the situation were the tabloids, which published pictures of Desi with other women. Lucille also happened to be pregnant.  This was a major dilemma. TV networks were prohibited from having expectant mothers on their shows.

Aaron Sorkin injected a few flashbacks scattered in various portions of the movie to feature Lucille’s back story; the earlier days when she was dating Desi, the period when she failed to make it as a leading lady in the movies, and the year when radio and TV saved her floundering career.

Sorkin also offers a fascinating peek into the making of an episode of I Love Lucy. The plot covers a week in the life of Lucille, which is how long they prepare for an episode. Every Monday the cast does a reading of the script. This is always frustrating for the show’s writers. It’s Lucy who decides what gag could work what doesn’t. If she dislikes it, a rewrite would be in order. Fridays are when the episode is taped before a live audience. In light of the controversies plaguing the two stars, it’s also on that day that they find out if the show would go on or not.

Since she’s playing the real Lucille Ball, Nicole Kidman doesn’t always play for laughs. Armed with an intelligently-written script, Kidman adds a new dimension to this Hollywood icon. Playing a beloved star isn’t new to her. She did play Grace Kelly, and also Elizabeth Montgomery in a remake of Bewitched. In those two movies, she was hampered by a problematic script but she still delivered. Happily, Aaron Sorkin gave her some great material to work with when it was time to play Lucille.

He looks nothing like Desi Arnaz, but trust Javier Bardem to make it work

I was also surprised by the casting of Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz. Bardem looks nothing like him. He was too old to have played this Cuban singer, who in the 1950s looked more youthful than Lucille. Trust Bardem to make it work. Despite our reservations, we easily accepted him as Arnaz right from his very first entrance. Like Lucille and Desi, Kidman and Bardem make a great team. Both their Oscar nominations were well earned.

While the movie dabbles into Lucille’s darker side, it doesn’t do a “Lucy Dearest” hatchet job. She’s a star and apparently, she often behaved like one. She’s also human, flaws and all. She may have been tough, yet she was also sympathetic and vulnerable. She may have been a stern and less than tactful boss, but her colleagues understood her and her motives. Lucille’s relationship with her  I Love Lucy co-workers is lovingly recreated and wonderfully acted.

More importantly, Aaron Sorkin showcased her genius. It’s not just about the mugging, the pratfalls, or the pie-in-the-face gags. We get to see how she worked hard to make I Love Lucy a success. It was her formula for lasting so long in Hollywood. The adage “They don’t make them like they used to” was invented for the likes of her.

Ironically, Being the Ricardos has sort of debunked that old saying. Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem  are living proof  that they’re still making them like they used to.

Being the Ricardos is streaming on Amazon Prime.

About author


He is a freelance writer of lifestyle and entertainment, after having worked in Philippine broadsheets and magazines.

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