Monday January 03, 2022
Movie Review: Being the Ricardos (2021)
I don’t know if it should've been Debra Messing but it definitely should not have been Nicole Kidman. Great actress, but, as my wife says, she doesn't have a funny bone in her body. You kind of need that for Lucille Ball. Plus she’s just had too much work done. Her face looks odd. The eyes mostly. And it means she can't really do Lucy's outsized facial expressions. Stop getting work done, everyone.
But it definitely should have been Javier Bardem as Ricky Ricardo, despite the idiot controversy over his casting. Oh no, a Spanish actor is playing a Cuban character! Right. He played one 20 years ago in “Before Night Falls” and no one said boo. He played a gay, Cuban poet even though he’s not gay, Cuban or a poet. It’s called acting. He’s great here, too. He brings life to every scene. Stop it, everyone.
Hey, maybe it shouldn’t have been Aaron Sorkin?
The week that was
I’d forgotten it was. Then 15 minutes in, I was like, “This feels like an Aaron Sorkin movie,” and in kind of a good way? Sharp, quick. Fifteen minutes later: “Yeah, this really seems like an Aaron Sorkin movie,” and not in a good way: maximizing every scene for argumentation. Then there’s that scene that made me laugh out loud: The three “I Love Lucy” writers want to talk to Ricky Ricardo and he says, “Walk me to the stage, we’re an hour behind.” It’s like Spike Lee’s dolly shot. Is it signature or have you just become a parody of yourself?
In the early 1960s, there was a satirical British show called “That Was the Week That Was” (great title), and that’s pretty much this. At some point during the run of the “Lucy” show, 1) Lucy was accused of being a communist, 2) the network wanted to hide her pregnancy rather than write it in, and 3) Ricky fooled around. Sorkin stuffs it all into the same week.
And that’s not enough. Did Vivian Vance try to lose weight and did Lucy passive-aggressively tell her not to? Did show writer Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) try to convince Lucy her whole multimillion-dollar shtick—the bumbling and the WAAAH!—was infantilizing women and needed to end? Who knows, but Sorkin shoves all that in, too.
It’s the Pugh confrontation that made me throw up my hands. It felt like a consciousness-raising session from the 1970s rather than a 1953 tete-a-tete between a writer and the biggest star on television about the character they both created. And the timing is ridiculous. “Hey, I know Walter Winchell just floated the accusation that you’re a communist, which is enough to ruin careers and lives forever, not to mention Confidential’s story about Desi’s affairs, which is enough to ruin marriages, but let me nitpick the character that’s bankrolled both of us as if I were a Women’s Studies undergrad in 1987. Because surely you have nothing else on your mind.”
Sorkin doesn’t even get the small things right. We’re going to “tape” the show? Wasn’t it on kinescope? And why did Sorkin pretend “The Big Street” was released in the late ’40s rather than 1942? World of difference. World war of difference. And what was that line about Lucy competing for roles with Rita Hayworth, Bette Davis and Judy Holliday? When were those three, let alone those four, ever up for the same role? “Hey, if Hayworth turns down ‘Gilda,’ see if you can’t get Bette Davis.”
I haven’t even gotten to J. Edgar Hoover yet. Good god. “Being the Ricardos” is, in part, a movie about the blacklist, about how the blacklist destroys lives, and who’s the unseen hero? The guy who shows up at the end to save the day? J. Edgar Hoover. Philip Loeb must be rolling over in his grave.
They should’ve mentioned Philip Loeb. “You saw what this did to Philip.” A line like that. Or Jean Muir? John Garfield? Red Channels? Why not bring in some context? You know, for kids.
Here’s the context. Loeb was a star on the TV sitcom “The Goldbergs,” basically its Desi, when Red Channels accused him of being a communist. He denied it, but the sponsor, General Foods, wanted him gone, and he was. Then he couldn’t get work. Then he killed himself with an overdose of pills. Hecky Brown from “The Front,” played by his friend Zero Mostel, and written by his friend Walter Bernstein, is based on him. And yes, he killed himself in 1955, and this is set in 1953, but I’ll take this anachronism. Truncate the motherfucker.
Instead, J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, who with HUAC and Hollywood’s Motion Picture Alliance (hiya, Ayn!) helped create the blacklist, is the hero.
What bugs me about Sorkin
I think I’m getting closer to what bugs me about Sorkin. My nephew Jordan, a bigger fan than I am (I believe), hits it on the mark when he says Sorkin rarely seems to be writing for characters. “It feels like everyone is just him being smart.”
I really noticed it in one of the opening scenes, where the cast is gathered around for a table read, and everyone is arguing back against Lucy. Often dismissively. Including director Donald Glass (Christopher Denham), a freelancer, brought in for that one episode. He talks over the biggest star on television and I’m like “Really? I get sexism, I get the egos of directors, but really? A guest on the set?” Turns out Glass is a fictionalization, of course.
Are there no brown-nosers? No hangers-on? Does Sorkin not understand power dynamics?
Compare that with the scene a few years earlier when the execs at CBS Television tell Lucy they want to take her radio show, “My Favorite Husband,” and make it a TV series. She says sure, but only if Desi can play my husband. She was trying to save her marriage, you see, by giving the two of them the same work schedule, but the execs pushed back. A white woman and a foreign man? Won’t fly. But she puts her foot down and wins the day.
In other words, when she has no power, she gets her way; and when she has all the power in the world, she gets walked over. Stretching out the debate is what matters in Sorkin's world.
In another move designed to placate Desi, Lucy talks to executive producer Jess Oppenheimer (Tony Hale) about having Desi share his credit. Oppenheimer obfuscates. First, he’s condescending to Desi, telling him he’s the title character of the show, since he’s the “I” in “I Love Lucy,” implying he doesn’t need any more, and for that Desi threatens to pull his lungs out. So Lucy goes back to Oppenheimer and says “Why couldn’t you do this little thing for me?” My immediate thought: “It’s not a little thing. It’s his credit. She should know that.” And then they argue for like two minutes before Oppenheimer yells at her, “It’s not a little thing!” and she gets it. However you maximize the argument, Sorkin takes that path.
But back to Hoover.
I knew about the pregnancy controversy. I knew about Ricky fooling around. But I didn’t know that during the blacklist the biggest star on television was accused of being a communist. But yes, it happened in September 1953.
And J. Edgar Hoover exonerated her?
Kind of. I found this 1991 article about the incident excerpted from Warren G. Harris’ 1990 book “Lucy and Desi.” Apparently after the LUCY IS A RED story broke in the Los Angeles Herald-Express, Desi phoned Hoover, whom he’d met at race tracks, and who assured him that Lucy was “100% clear as far as we’re concerned.” But that was a private conversation. It wasn’t before a live studio audience, as Sorkin has it. No, according to Harris, here’s how it went down. CBS’s PR dept. convinced Desi to convince Rep. Donald Jackson (R-CA) and other members of HUAC to hold a press conference saying Lucy’s been cleared. He did that and they did that. Then Desi asked AP reporter James Bacon to phone him with a report as soon as it was over. Bacon did that. And that’s the big phone call they got in front of the live studio audience. Bacon, not Hoover.
Afterwards, as was his nature, Hoover kept tabs on Lucy and Desi throughout the ’50s and ’60s. That’s our hero here.
I get why Sorkin did it. J. Edgar Hoover is a bigger name than Donald Jackson or James Bacon. And it’s like Nixon going to China. You’re going to accuse Nixon of being pro-communist? You’re going to accuse Hoover of being a com-symp? But Sorkin still shouldn’t have done it. It’s an insult to anyone who was ever blacklisted.
Debra Messing dodged a bullet.