A Look On The Lighter Side: What Sorkin gets right in ‘Being the Ricardos’

Judy Epstein

For much of the 1950s, fear of a terrible despot gripped our nation.  No, not Hitler, not Mussolini, not even Franklin D. Roosevelt. The despot in question was Joseph McCarthy, U.S. senator from Wisconsin.  And from 1950 until shortly before his death in 1957, McCarthy was feared by all in the U.S. government and many outside it, possibly even all the way up to the presidency.

One word from McCarthy — or one of his henchmen at the House Un-American Activities Committee — that somebody might be “un-American” (their synonym for communist) and their career was over. People were fired or just never hired. Some had to move overseas to make a living. Some never recovered.

It is into this situation that writer and director Aaron Sorkin catapults the stars of his newest film, “Being the Ricardos.”

The story takes place during one momentous week in the lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, married co-creators of the still-iconic television comedy, “I Love Lucy.”

A rumor — just one sentence at the end of Walter Winchell’s radio broadcast — has hinted without naming her that Lucy is a communist. Crisis immediately ensues.

Nicole Kidman as Lucy and Javier Bardem as Desi walk into the Monday table-read for that week’s script at CBS and run straight into a wall of tension. A boatload of high-ranking executives from the network and, more importantly, from their sponsor, Philip Morris, are all there, on tenterhooks to hear whether there will even be a show to film by the time Friday rolls around.

Sorkin is famous for smart, snappy dialogue and this film has plenty. I especially enjoyed the banter between cast, crew, and writers during the backstage scenes. For example, at that table-read, when Lucy questioned the new director’s comedy credentials, he answered, “I’ve watched every episode of your show.” She replies, “So have 60 million people. Are any of them a television director?”

As the week drags on, Lucy’s doubts are validated. An entire network full of oblivious male egos tries to tell the Queen of Comedy what will and won’t work in her own show! It made me want to scream and appreciate what a combination of strength and genius it took — from Lucy and Desi both — to ever get their program made at all.

I am glad I saw this film, even though I had to get out to a movie theater to see it. But COVID precautions have changed the experience completely. Keeping my mask on for more than two hours, unable to eat or drink or even chat with various fellow movie-goers afterwards, takes all the fun out of movie-going for me. It was almost torture.

The film sparkles whenever Kidman and Bardem are in the scene.  But Sorkin takes a lot of detours that just don’t work, be it the mockumentary with fake “old timers” that Sorkin uses to frame his story, or a spot of cattiness between Lucy and her female co-star, or the dynamics of being the only woman in a Hollywood writers room. I cannot believe that anybody in the 1950s used phrases like “a woman of your generation” or “they’re infantilizing you.” I suspect Sorkin planted these scenes just to catch attention from Twitter.

I don’t mention Twitter lightly. According to one interview, Sorkin hopes viewers of this film will “see some similarities between what’s happening to Lucy and what happens to a number of people that fall out of favor with Twitter.”

Really? Twitter? That’s the big picture for him? I apparently got the wrong memo — or perhaps the wrong Tweet. Instead of Twitter, I instantly thought of the most un-American activity I have ever seen in my life — namely, tens of thousands of violent protesters attacking the Capitol, attempting to lynch the vice president and stop the peaceful transfer of power almost a year ago on Jan. 6.

Where is the energy, the outrage for dealing with that? From Aaron Sorkin or anybody else?

“Being the Ricardos” reminds us that once upon a time this country ostracized and terrorized its citizens over nothing at all. Now that we have a real emergency threatening our democracy, I wish I could see even just a fraction of that energy being marshaled in our defense.

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