Being the Ricardos
Now Streaming on Amazon Prime

Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem star as Lucille Ball and
Desi Arnaz in a drama about one very bad week in the couples’ life.

“I’m not funny,” Lucille Ball once said (LOL). “What I am is brave.” It was performative modesty of the kind that celebrities excel at and it was true. You get the tiniest peek at how brave she could be in Being the Ricardos, Aaron Sorkin’s very soft look at a very bad week that Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz, had while starring in their hit show I Love Lucy. She was America’s favorite redhead, he was her glamorous bandleader husband, and they were adored by millions.

Being the Ricardos reimagines what happened in 1953 after the powerful gossipmonger Walter Winchell dropped a not-so blind item about Ball into his radio broadcast: “The most popular of all television stars was confronted with her membership in the Communist Party.” Joe McCarthy was hunting supposed communists and the Hollywood blacklist was in full effect; Winchell’s item was potentially career killing and life destroying. But when a publicist told Ball that Winchell was probably talking about another big TV comic, Ball joked that she resented the implication. “Everyone knows that I’m the top comedian!”

Director Aaron Sorkin jumps into the fray with Lucy (Nicole Kidman) and Desi (Javier Bardem), who come off like nastier, edgier versions of their TV alter egos. “Lucy, I’m home,” Desi announces right at the start at their real house. “Where the hell have you been, you Cuban dimwit?” she bellows. A minute later, they are pawing at each other, instigating a push and pull that continues throughout. Coyly, Sorkin obscures the pair’s faces for a few beats, showing their images reflected on a glassy pane, a nod to their blurred on- and offscreen lives.

With the Winchell item as a jumping off point, Sorkin then tracks how Lucy and Desi navigated this crisis, their hit show and their strained marriage. Shortly after Winchell plants the juicy item in his radio broadcast, Lucy and Desi breeze into the workweek at Desilu Productions, steeled with their million-dollar smiles and a vague plan. Taking a wait-and-see approach, they steady themselves for the blowback and calm the skittish executives, crew and cast — Nina Arianda makes a terrific, beleaguered Ethel to J.K. Simmons’s sourpuss Fred — as the gang hashes out the next episode.

Sorkin folds in black-and-white recreations from I Love Lucy — in a nice touch, Lucy can see in her head how a scene will play — as well as flashbacks that trace the arc of Lucy and Desi’s relationship. He also weaves in faux documentary-style testimonials from people who worked on the series, including the show-runner and writers. The movie is busy, creating tension that makes a sturdy through line on which Sorkin can hang the many moving parts.

Some of the liberties that Sorkin has taken in adapting fact to fiction are instructive. In his biggest move, he has shifted the timing of Lucy’s second pregnancy so that she and Desi announce it to shocked collaborators and executives not long after the Winchell item lands. The real pregnancy became national news the year before because Ball and Arnaz’s television counterparts were turned into expectant parents, too. It was radical, a scandal — “You can’t have a pregnant woman on television,” a bewildered suit in the movie says — and proved a ratings coup. More people apparently tuned into the birth of the Ricardos’ baby in January 1953 than watched Eisenhower’s inauguration.

The year 1953 was a busy one for Arnaz and Ball. He had a hit song; she won an Emmy. In September, she also testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which grilled her for registering to vote as a Communist Party member in 1936 (as did her mother and brother). Her appearance before the committee was kept secret, perhaps as a concession to her enormous popularity, and she said her registration was to appease her socialist grandfather. Whatever the truth — and it’s worth noting that Ball had gutsily stood up to McCarthyism in the not-too-distant past — her testimony was a master class in deflection. Here too, she played the dingbat brilliantly. When asked if she knew the phrase “criminal syndicalism,” Ball replied, “No, but it is pretty.”

Being the Ricardos shows us Ball’s superb comic instincts in action. She isn’t just directing comedy; she’s deconstructing it, revising it, turning dinner-table slapstick into an intellectual puzzle. More intimately, you will see her determination to save her show and her marriage, and how seriously she took her craft and the audience. We loved her first, but she loved us right back.

Being the Ricardos is Rated R for adult language. The running time is 2 hours 5 minutes. On view in local theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime.