Thanks to Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, and writer/director Aaron Sorkin, this Christmas season Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel will be holding an open house. Welcome back to 623 East 68th Street in New York City in the early 1950’s. Being the Ricardos is now in theatrical release and available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
Sorkin, however, is not serving up a warm stew of nostalgia. I Love Lucy is only on the screen for a few minutes of the two-hour film. This is a backstage biopic that focuses on the anything but placid relationships of the key players in the mega-hit series.
For those few not acquainted with the show, Lucy ran from October 15, 1951 until May 6, 1957 for a total of 180 episodes plus a pilot.
Lucy’s popularity is virtually unrivaled: in a country that had 15 million television sets, almost 11 million were tuned in to Lucy each Monday night. More than 30 million viewers could be on hand for an episode. The New York Times reported that the nation’s reservoirs dropped during the Lucy commercials because viewers collectively took restroom breaks. It was said “the nation flushes as one during I Love Lucy.”
Decades of reruns of those original 180 shows have crowned Lucy the longest lasting television program in history.
“I remember watching I Love Lucy reruns when I was home sick from school,” Sorkin recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s not a show that if we took a fresh look at today, we’d think was funny, I don’t think. But there are people who consider those four people their best friends.” (Some would disagree with Sorkin’s assessment of how funny the series still is.)
It was the fractious off-screen connections that attracted Sorkin’s attention. “There were just all these interesting conflicts and that’s what I am looking for,” he observed. “Points of friction that add up to something you can write about.”
Sorkin continued, “I was interested in the contrast between Lucy and Ricky, and Lucy and Desi and then throw in the kind of strained relationship she had with Vivian Vance and throw in the kind of Damon Runyon character William Frawley was and suddenly there were these stories to tell.”
To Sorkin’s credit, in Ricardos, he manages to effectively deliver a character-driven film about the high-pressure whirlpool of a successful weekly television series. Just capturing the essence of someone as complex as Lucille Ball is an accomplishment.
Ball biographer, Kathleen Brady, described her as tough, difficult, and demanding — but equally thoughtful and caring. Ball, said Brady, had a “much greater bandwidth than most human beings.”
The late Robert Osborne, the face of Turner Classic Movies for more than two decades, knew Ball well when he was a contract player for Desilu.
“Life was not easy for her,” Osborne told journalist Greg Ehrbar. “She didn’t finish high school. She started to work when she was about 15, passing herself off as 17.”
By the time the opportunity for weekly television came into her life, she was almost 40 years old — the series was one of her last chances, “we had to be successful,” Ball said.
With all of this pressure, Ball became very difficult on the set: she could chew up directors and actors by micro-managing scenes in the most granular, acerbic manner. She was especially tough on Vance, who later became one of her closest friends.
The Ball-Arnaz marriage and business association had overtones of Macbeth: a roller coaster of dependency, crisis management, and suspected betrayal was the order of the day. As one character in the Ricardos proclaimed, they were either “tearing each other’s heads off or tearing each other’s clothes off.”
“These were two people passionately in love with each other who just couldn’t make it,” Sorkin said.
Come Oscar time, Kidman, Bardem and Sorkin are likely to be remembered. Also, J. K. Simmons and Nina Arianda, as Frawley and Vance, could not have been portrayed more sensitively.
Sorkin ends his film on the soundstage of I Love Lucy. In real life, here are the circumstances of the final curtains of the four leads:
After his Lucy years, Frawley had a 5-year run on another popular program, My Three Sons. His final television appearance was a heartfelt cameo on The Lucy Show. A sudden heart attack felled him on Hollywood Boulevard, March 3, 1966, five days after his 79th birthday. He was on his way home after watching a movie.
Vivian Vance passed away August 17, 1979 at the age of 70 following a lengthy battle with cancer. Her post Lucy years were occupied with various television and stage projects.
Just prior to her death, Vance and Ball had one last meaningful visit. The two spent an afternoon “talking about everything.” Paige Matthews Peterson, a close friend, told Vance biographers Frank Castelluccio and Alvin Walker: “In the end, those two women probably loved each other more than anyone else in the world. Did they have problems? Absolutely…(but) they worshiped each other and Viv was truly Lucy’s best friend … Viv was thrilled Lucy was there.”
Ball was the last person Arnaz spoke to prior to lung cancer claiming his life at 69 on December 2, 1986. They talked on the phone with Lucy telling him over and over how much she loved him. Ironically, the date of that final contact was November 30 — it was their wedding anniversary (November 30, 1940).
Ball suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 77 on April 26, 1989.
Charles Osgood of CBS summed it up best: “We did love Lucy. She could make us laugh until it hurt, she was just so funny. But there was more to Lucille Ball than comic instincts and timing. Like Charlie Chaplin, her funniness was art. And it came out being like us — human and vulnerable.”