What's Fact and What's Fiction in 'Being the Ricardos'
The new biopic starring Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem takes many liberties in depicting one week behind the scenes of 'I Love Lucy.'
Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos is an inside look at one of TV’s most beloved sitcoms and the couple whose real-life marriage was far from their weekly television shenanigans. The road to release has been bumpy, with much of the internet taking umbrage at the casting of Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem in the roles of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz—the first trailer did little to quiet naysayers—and some of Sorkin’s interview comments fueling the fire. Condensing three major events that took place during the production of I Love Lucy into a one-week period (in reality, they occurred over three different years) with an assortment of flashbacks contextualizing the central partnership is a purposeful narrative choice that leads to an overstuffed biopic.
Pouring gasoline onto Ball and Arnaz’s already fraught cheating rumors and pregnancy news isn’t required, and Being the Ricardos is at its best when depicting the inner workings of the series that essentially invented the family sitcom as we know it. Throughout his career, Sorkin has used TV studios as backdrops (see: Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, The Newsroom), and as with those previous efforts, snappy dialogue is used to emphasize conflict and harmony. While The Newsroom borrowed real events, this is the first time Sorkin has made a movie about famous Hollywood figures. As with last year’s Oscar-nominated The Trial of the Chicago 7, his deviations from what happened are telling.
Let’s break down what is fact and what is fiction in Being the Ricardos, now available on Amazon Prime.
What happened when Lucy and Desi first met?
Desi Arnaz made his Broadway debut in the musical Too Many Girls and reprised his role in the 1940 film version at RKO. Instead of swinging by a rehearsal wearing the torn burlesque costume and bruised makeup Kidman is sporting as Lucy for her Dance, Girl, Dance role, the legendary meet-cute occurred in the RKO commissary. Arnaz described his initial impression to Bart Andrews in The I Love Lucy Book, saying, “I didn’t like her at first. She looked awful. Very tough." Later, when Ball had changed out of the shredded gold lamé dress, Arnaz had an entirely different reaction, thinking he was meeting her for the first time. Arnaz did ask if she knew how to rumba (a cheesy pick-up Ricky uses in the Season 3 episode “The Black Wig”). “Some line he had! We went out, all right, but all we did was sit and yak all night. Never got to dance once,” Ball told Andrews. Both were seeing other people at the time, but a few days later, they ran into each other at a Too Many Girls cast party in Malibu. They ditched their dates and went home together.
Sorkin presents a more streamlined version that labors on the idea of Lucy wanting a home and Desi observing her movie-star potential. The soft lighting and airbrushed makeup do not give the impression that Bardem is playing a 23-year-old (Ball, meanwhile, was 29), and while the flashbacks set up this push-and-pull, it is ultimately a distraction—even if it isn’t too far from what happened.
Did CBS think audiences wouldn't believe they were married?
“Nobody wanted me to play Ricky,” Arnaz recalled during a 1983 appearance on Letterman. Being the Ricardos accurately represents the prejudice Arnaz faced because he was born in Cuba. Ball’s refusal to star alongside anyone else led to this groundbreaking husband-and-wife pairing. Their sold-out vaudeville shows and positive reviews proved to CBS that the public wasn’t too sheltered to believe the couple was married.
Did Lucy have a rivalry with Rita Hayworth and Judy Holliday?
Famous feuds litter the Old Hollywood landscape, from Bette Davis and Joan Crawford to Olivia de Havilland and sister Joan Fontaine. In Being the Ricardos, Lucy lands a coveted part opposite John Ford in The Big Street, thrilled to have replaced Rita Hayworth and beaten out the likes of Judy Holliday. There is no indication she had beef with either woman, and while her “queen of the B’s” moniker likely caused some career envy, her main consternation was at being pigeonholed. This gossipy artistic license underscores Ball’s lack of A-list parts before I Love Lucy. Notable clashes with Tallulah Bankhead, Joan Crawford, and Richard Burton all occurred on television shows bearing Ball’s name.
Why this particular episode of I Love Lucy?
Being the Ricardos begins with the Sunday-night broadcast of Walter Winchell’s radio series and then takes place over one week. The date is Monday, September 7, 1953, and the episode they are making actually aired in March 1952.
"There's a problem with the script that Lucy keeps returning to throughout rehearsal, and I liked that, so I just kind of grabbed that one, thinking, ‘Well if this doesn't work, I'll choose a different one,’” Sorkin explained to Entertainment Weekly about picking Season 1’s “Fred and Ethel Fight.” The actual episode filmed during this tumultuous week was “The Girls Go Into Business,” and there is nothing in the core performances to suggest anything is awry. (Both are available on Paramount+.)
The dinner-table setup in "Fred and Ethel Fight" proves integral to the depiction of Lucy’s issues with the script and the fundamental marital problems. The episode’s premise is based on something that happened between Ball and Arnaz when they had friends over for dinner—they would often incorporate real clashes for plot purposes—and it is surprising that Sorkin ignores this art-imitating-life moment. Instead, Lucy’s frustrations with Desi’s philandering are projected onto Ricky’s entrance and the imagined alternate take that Lucy concocts. One other issue with “The Girls Go Into Business” is that Little Ricky appears in the first scene, whereas in Sorkin’s timeline, he hasn’t been born yet.
Did the show's writers squabble?
Unlike today’s writers’ rooms, the first four seasons (totaling 127 episodes) only had a three-person writing team. Showrunner Jess Oppenheimer and writing partners Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Pugh Davis recycled some of the material they had used on Ball’s radio series My Favorite Husband, which is understandable when churning out 35 installments in the first season alone. Early in her memoir, Laughing with Lucy, Pugh Davis talks about the complexities of working with Ball: She “made whatever you wrote look great” but was also “blunt and had trouble expressing herself.” Rehearsals were a big part of Ball’s process (as the movie depicts), and she lacked the “innate charm” of her husband when it came to pointing out flaws in the scripts.
The dynamic between Maddie (Alia Shawkat) and Bob (Jake Lacy) in the movie reads as frustrated and combative. Bickering non-romantic or unrequited couples are a Sorkin signature, and while Pugh Davis notes this professional relationship was like being married (“only you get to go home at night to somebody else”), she also says they only ever argued about the temperature of their shared office. There is a lot of backbiting between their on-screen counterparts that lack the warmth of their 50-year writing partnership. Maddie’s quips about the lousy Too Many Girls script (she is not wrong) and generational comments read like a snappy Sorkin invention for a contemporary audience. One superficial change comes courtesy of Lacy’s clean-shaven look, whereas the real Bob had a distinctive beard and expressive, bushy eyebrows.
What about the director Lucy seems to dislike?
One sticking point Lucy has upon arriving at the table read is guest director Donald Glass (Christopher Denham). This character is one of a few fictional figures, but the conflicts depicted have factual roots. In reality, it was William Asher, who took over after director Marc Daniels departed at the end of the first season, who clashed with Ball.
Asher initially quarreled with Ball regarding her tendency to micromanage, saying, “If I’m going to direct these shows, then I’m going to do it. Now, if you want to do it, then you don’t have to pay me. You guys would save money.” Asher tells this story in Desilu, a thorough account of Ball and Arnaz’s personal and professional lives written by Coyne Steven Sanders and Tom Gilbert. In the movie, as in real life, Ball’s persistent need to understand every direction came from a place of vulnerability, which Asher eventually understood: “Actors can’t really trust anybody. It’s your face up on the screen, and it’s very hard to give yourself to somebody. And that was her way of knowing that I knew what I was doing.”
What was William Frawley's whole deal?
It is well documented that William Frawley and Vivian Vance could barely stand the sight of each other. (Frawley overhearing Vance’s dismay at being paired with a man 20 years her senior started their acrimony.) While J.K. Simmons avoids pants quite as high as Fred Mertz’s famous silhouette, there are some truths to his napping and drinking habits. Arnaz fought for Frawley to get the part when CBS executives raised concerns about his alcoholic reputation. Arnaz laid out a three-strike policy. If he showed up to work drunk (or was absent because he was boozing) more than three times, he would be fired. “He never missed a day’s work nor was he even a few minutes late during all the years he was with us,” Arnaz is quoted saying in Desilu. However, Frawley was known for only paying attention to the pages of the script he appeared in, and late-night rehearsals were out of the question. A wise veteran with a gruff demeanor is another favored Sorkin trope (see: The West Wing’s Leo McGarry and The Newsroom’s Charlie Skinner).
Was there conflict over Desi Arnaz's producer credit?
Ego-driven disagreements between creator Oppenheimer and Arnaz were ongoing. “Desi doesn’t get a lot of credit. For some reason, people play down his part like he was some lucky Cuban,” Pugh Davis says in Desilu about his integral creative input. Sorkin’s biopic does right by Arnaz in emphasizing his business acumen behind the scenes. His executive-producer credit on the show was a sticking point, and one that Oppenheimer regretted giving. When Oppenheimer departed in 1956, reports quoted Arnaz saying, “We’re not losing a producer—we’re gaining a parking space.” Savage.
The Red Scare
What is HUAC?
Getting “canceled” is now a regular (and often meaningless) phrase thrown about to describe a star embroiled in a scandal. In the 1950s, if someone in Hollywood was accused of Communism, they could end up on the blacklist and lose work. The House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) tore through Tinseltown to “expose” Communists and Communist sympathizers. When Lucille Ball’s 1936 Communist Party registration came to light, it could’ve easily been the end of I Love Lucy and Desilu.
Was Lucille Ball a Communist?
In 1953, HUAC called Ball to testify in a closed-door session. She cut short her Labor Day vacation in Del Mar and returned to Los Angeles alone. There, she answered questions about registering as a Communist at the behest of her grandfather, Fred Hunt. (Ball’s father died when she was 3 and she referred to Hunt as Daddy.) During the two-hour testimony, she explained, “In those days it was not a terrible thing to do. It was almost as terrible to be a Republican in those days.” (Sorkin borrows this line when Lucy is talking to CBS executives.) Ball was cleared and told this would be the end of the matter, but she hadn’t factored in the Hollywood gossip network. Walter Winchell—a DeuxMoi for the 1950s—ended his Sunday radio show with a blind item that essentially said Ball had been “confronted with her membership in the Communist Party.” Arnaz immediately launched into protective mode and drove from Del Mar (where he was playing cards) to L.A. That Friday, reporters descended on the Desilu ranch in Chatsworth, and Arnaz used his world-famous temper to confront the men while dressed in his bathrobe. By noon, headlines were touting Ball’s affiliation in four-inch type.
What happened after the news broke?
Ball and Arnaz headed into work as normal before the afternoon editions hit newsstands. Ball went about her usual hair and makeup routine while Arnaz took to the phone to figure out if they even had a show anymore. Arnaz offered to pay out of his pocket for their Monday-night slot so Ball could set the record straight, but sponsor Philip Morris said this was unnecessary. No calls to J. Edgar Hoover were made, but Arnaz did contact HUAC chairman Donald L. Jackson, who cleared Ball’s name at a press conference two hours before the audience arrived at Desilu Studios. There was no dramatic newspaper-headline reveal or guest appearance by Hoover. (Arnaz did personally know the FBI boss from the Del Mar racetrack but didn’t require the flashy stunt casting IRL)
Before each episode, Arnaz warmed up the audience, but this time his words were more somber. In Desilu, Arnaz’s eyes are described as filling with tears, and his voice was shaking as he publicly stood up for his wife. In Arnaz’s memoir (simply called A Book), he recalls telling the audience, “My family was thrown out of Cuba because we fought the Communists. We hate them. They destroyed our lives and I wasn’t about to marry one.” It's a speech that hits a trifecta of sentimental, angry, and funny beats—he called her his favorite redhead before adding, “That’s the only thing red about her, and even that’s not legitimate.” This rousing address is met with unanimous support and has all the makings of a Sorkin scene. Therefore, it is bewildering that Sorkin decided to introduce the fantastical Hoover element, as Desi already ticks the Sorkin hero boxes.
Why was Lucille Ball's pregnancy such a taboo?
At the end of Season 1, Ball and Arnaz found out they were expecting their second child. This would revolutionize the depiction of pregnancy on TV and score the highest-rated episode at the time.
Pregnancy meant a couple had engaged in bedroom activities—“12 weeks ago I fucked my husband,” Lucy jokes to a room of shocked executives in Being the Ricardos—which was a big standards and practices (at the time called “continuity acceptance”) no-no. At this point, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo slept in twin beds that were pushed together. (After Little Ricky’s birth, their singles would be separated.) In reality, Oppenheimer didn’t object to writing this into the series, In fact, it was his idea. As Pugh Davis recalls, “This is just what we need to give us excitement in the second season. Lucy Ricardo will have a baby too.” Rather than scrap an entire run of episodes, they simply moved up shooting dates and took a shorter hiatus between seasons before Ball started showing.
Did the sponsors save the show?
Both CBS and the Biow Agency (which represented Philip Morris) weren’t thrilled and would only give them two episodes to address the pregnancy storyline. Arnaz wanted an eight-to-10-episode arc because there was no way to hide Ball’s bump, and he went straight to the top of Philip Morris with an ultimatum that's depicted in the movie. In the end, they were given seven episodes to cover the story. It wasn’t until years later that Arnaz learned Philip Morris chairman Alfred E. Lyons had sent out a confidential memo saying, “To whom it may concern: Don’t fuck around with the Cuban!” The one note from Philip Morris was that Lucy couldn’t smoke on-screen during her pregnancy episodes, but the only smoking objection in the movie is when Lucy lights up the brand she endorsed before her I Love Lucy days.
To show a pregnant woman was one thing, but to use the word was another. CBS stipulated that they had to say “expecting," and Oppenheimer came up with the idea to run scripts by a rabbi, a priest, and a minister. (“What’s questionable about having a baby?” the three men asked.) The birth of Little Ricky in January 1953 (on the same day as Desi Arnaz Jr.) was watched by an estimated 44 million viewers.
What was the tabloid story that exposed the marriage's troubles?
The choice to add the pregnancy and tabloid scandals to the Red Scare ordeal inadvertently portrays the couple during one of their happiest periods and when the relationship started to fall apart. Arnaz’s womanizing reputation and Ball’s concerns about his wandering eye (and penchant for sleeping with sex workers) didn’t begin in 1955 with the Confidential cover story, but his drinking became a problem during this time, which exacerbated the issue. The incendiary piece (“Does Desi Really Love Lucy?”) details illicit encounters from the 1940s when Ball did file for divorce and speaks to the “vice dollies” in the present “who were paid handsomely for loving Desi briefly, but presumably, as effectively as Lucy.” In Desilu, the couple is described as publicly laughing it off at work, but the humiliation cut deep—even if Lucy wouldn’t leave her husband for another five years.
The third season of the TCM podcast The Plot Thickens is dedicated to Ball and details this tabloid exposé and subsequent marriage dissolution. In an archival interview featured in Episode 8, Ball says, “Desi was a very hardworking, brilliant, generous, overly generous man, but he had a drinking problem and a self-destruct, and it happened in business even before it happened with us. There are a lot of people that are gamblers and brilliant, but if they drink and they self-destruct, that's the way they are.” It is as if Being the Ricardos is trying to squeeze all of these attributes into the one-week narrative and only capturing half of the story in the battle to encompass it all.