For World Redhead Day: Movies About Lucy

Today is World Redhead Day. We’ve already posted a roundup of famous female redheads of stage and screen here. Today, I thought I’d pay tribute to a particular redhead whose work I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating lately: Lucille Ball.

A few months ago, during the depths of the pandemic here in NY, the wife and I dug in and binged a bunch of I Love Lucy. It was the first time in a whole long while (really maybe the only time) that I watched something that inspired me to direct theatre, e,g, to direct in the way that most stage directors love to direct. I loved watching those 4 actors (and usually one guest star) zip in and out of that tiny little apartment set. There’s a lot of farce in it. Those 3 doors (to the kitchen, the bedroom and the outside hall) are always flapping open and closed. Sometimes Lucy will be hiding behind the couch or in the closet or under the table and the other characters won’t even see her. It’s like commedia. And I also, for the first time, with the perspective of all the research I’ve done in recent years, began to appreciate the vaudeville of it, to see Lucy and Desi in the context of teams, to see them as a team, like one does Burns and Allen, or Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, or the similar cast of The Honeymooners, and also to see the vaudeville of Desi’s ethnic schtick, which naturally is genuine, but he learned to use it comically.

Also during the pandemic, I watched several movies about the team, and so I share my thoughts on them today, to augment my original posts on Lucy and Desi.


Lucy and Desi: Before the Laughter (1991)

40 years after the debut of I Love Lucy, five years after the death of Desi Arnaz, and two years after the passing of Lucille Ball, we get the first bio-pic of that tragicomic power couple. Writer William Luce specialized in biographical drama, having written plays and screenplays about Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Bronte, Zelda Fitzgerald, Lillian Hellman, John Barrymore, George C. Patton, and Wallis Simpson/Edward VIII. Director Charles Jarrott had shot the latter one, entitled The Woman He Loved in 1988. He too, had many bio-pics under his belt, including Anne of a Thousand Days (1969), Mary Queen of Scots (1971), Ike (1986), Lyndon Johnson (1987), I Would Be Called John: Pope John XXIII (1987), and Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story (1987). Frances Fisher (best known nowadays for playing Kate Winslet’s cruel mother in Titanic) is a surprisingly apt Lucy, and what little humor there is in this picture about a famous funny lady comes from her — it’s sure not in the leaden script. The worst element by far is the casting of soap opera actor Maurice Bernard as Desi. Though Bernard has some Latin ancestry, his accent is terrible, and he’s simply wrong for the part. This one shares many of the foibles of TV movie history show of that day and age, including half-hearted period accuracy, at best. Both of the subsequent bio-pics about Lucy and Desi are better.


Lucy (2003)

This is my favorite of the existing Lucy and Desi bio-pics, including the 2021 Aaron Sorkin one, which made the loudest noise and has the biggest stars. Danny Pino of Law and Order: SVU is easily the best Desi Arnaz, and not just because he is the only actual Cuban to play him. He’s also convincing as a good looking ladies man (because he knows what it is to be one) and is more than competent as an actor. Equally enjoyable is Rachel York as Lucy. In her case, not because she is a dead ringer for the comedienne, but because she is a lively musical comedy performer, with all the chops to do the required shtick, and to let that carry over into her portrayal of the offscreen Ball. The terrific cast also has Ann Dowd (coincidentally my wife’s second cousin) as Lucy’s mom, and LaChanze as her personal assistant Harriet. This version is very good on the troubled Arnaz marriage, and just all around the most enjoyable version to watch. The only weird aspect is that it was shot in New Zealand with lots of local actors in supporting parts, so that you often find yourself going, “What’s up with THAT strange guy?”, and it’s usually because he’s a New Zealander trying to do an American accent.

Being the Ricardos (2021)

Wow! Lucie Arnaz was right, after all — Nicole Kidman turned out to be an excellent casting choice for the part of Lucille Ball in Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos. It shouldn’t have shocked me as much as it did. I admire Kidman tremendously. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen her be “bad”, although I frequently catch her dropping her American accent from time to time when her roles call for one. On this occasion, the principal worry was that she couldn’t be funny in the precise low brow way that Lucy is, and she can’t. Kidman can do comedy, of course. She can even be sitcom funny, as when she played a version of Samantha Stevens in the 2005 Bewitched movie. But the Elizabeth Montgomery style of comedy is vastly different from the Lucille Ball kind. Kidman is neither as entertaining in the role as Rachel York had been in Lucy (2003) nor a dead ringer for her like Frances Fisher in 1991’s Lucy and Desi: Before the Laughter. Still, Kidman was fine in the the handful of requisite re-enactments of classic Lucy scenes, like the grape-stomping-in-Italy bit. Thankfully such scenes were both short and few. Where Kidman REALLY excelled was in bringing to life the strong-willed, difficult, uncompromising behind-the-scenes Lucy. On a technical level, I was floored by the excellence of her voicework. She really captured Lucy’s distinct, husky, low rasp — I hope she can recover from it!

It’s as a showcase for Kidman’s skills (and those of her co-stars) that Being the Ricardos principally succeeds. I especially enjoyed Tony Hale as I Love Lucy’s take-no-shit showrunner Jess Oppenheimer — a VERY different role from his submissive gopher on VeepAlia Shawkat was also extremely enjoyable as legendary comedy writer Madelyn Pugh. Nina Arianda, memorable in such films as Florence Foster Jenkins (2018) and Stan and Ollie (2018) was apt, if not sufficiently broad in the backside, for Vivian VanceJ.K. Simmons must have seemed an inspired choice for William Frawley, but by now Simmons is kind of his OWN William Frawley; other than being gruff, he mostly plays a version of himself here. And Javier Bardem works his butt off to be someone he’s not, the matinee-idol-handsome singer, bandleader, and producer Desi Arnaz. Bardem even sings and plays bongos in the film, but is unable to escape the fact that he’s 20 years older than the character, is kind of lumpy and stout around the middle, and possesses the pushed-in, pugilistic pie-pan of an Anthony Quinn instead of a guy who makes girls go weak in the knees with his thousand-watt smile.

Worse, Desi is way underwritten in the film. As it ever was in life, this is Lucy’s show. I’ve always had a difficult time imagining the real Lucy, the formidable powerhouse who made the clown possible. Kidman illuminates the character, an actor’s highest calling. That said…you’ll notice I haven’t said much about Sorkin yet. I’ve never been a member of his cult. I find myself amused by the occasional quip, and impressed by the occasional insight, but in general his supposed “genius” seems to me a lot of smoke and mirrors. He throws everything at his assignments. Some of it sticks, but no more than that. Here I found myself irritated on multiple fronts. First, the thing is steeped in trite cliches, beginning with its weak present participle title gimmick (Regarding Henry, Eating Raoul, Killing Eve, Forgetting Sara Marshall), to its faux documentary use of talking heads (though some, like Linda Lavin or Ronnie Cox are folks we don’t mind seeing), to the kind of stupid, overdone pointless Hollywood cliches like Lucy flirtatiously lighting a cigarette, Lauren Bacall style, as she leans against a soundstage door. This is the kind of thing I hated in Mank, and it never grows newer. I found myself irritated by the I Love Lucy “fan service” gesture of having Frawley and Vance bicker all the time. Okay, I guess that’s what someone wants, but how does it serve the movie? Are they the comic relief? In a movie about Lucille Ball?

Mostly, though, this picture suffers from the usual malady of all bio-pics, Hollywood ones or otherwise. Sorkin seems to have no idea what story he wants to tell. A great romance? A doomed romance? Something about the HUAC witch trials? Something about a strong woman in a man’s world? Something about anti-Latin bigotry, a cross-cultural love affair, and changes in American culture? Something about censorship battles? Well, it turns out the answer is “all of the above”. The movie keeps going from one to the other like a starving p.a. at the craft services table — “I’ll have a donut…and a meatball…and an orange…and a bagel…” And by trying to be ALL the stories, in the end, it ends up being NO story, at least not one, clear show biz fable you’ll take away and remember as a classic, as we do with oh, Walk the Line or Ed Wood.

Sorkin also seems to lack a sense of proportion and where to place appropriate emphasis. Here, he seems to give the same dramatic weight to how Lucy worked out bits of slapstick that one might use for, oh, the invention of the telephone. Even I don’t think such moments are THAT historically important. Sorkin seems more in his element with things like The Trial of the Chicago Seven. Court cases, riots in the streets, the U.S. Constitution. Those things are both momentous and portentous. Where Lucy puts her chair for the comedy routine? Not so much.

Lucy and Desi (2022)

This one is not a bio-pic but a loving and thorough documentary by Amy Poehler and I can’t praise it enough. It’s easily the best telling of this story, and if anything it’s far more moving and funny than any of the attempted bio-pics. In addition to clips of the couple in performance, it compiles some of their best historical interviews, new interview material with both of the Arnaz children, and such enlightening talking heads as Bette Midler and Carol Burnett (to cover the Lucy side) and Cuban-American playwright Eduard Machado (whom I know quite well because he’s on the board of Theater for the New City) and Charo, to cover the Desi side. Norman Lear talks knowledgably about both, for he understands comedians but he also revived Desilu’s patented three-camera live-audience shooting for his sit-coms. I watched this during my recent Covid bout and shortly thereafter saw the early Saturday Night Live episode with Desi Arnaz, pere et fils — it was very touching in the wake of all that, to see him revisit his classic numbers for a new audience, and to be quite hilarious in comedy sketches.

On a related topic, see my account of my recent trip to the Lucille Ball Museum in Jamestown, New York, go here.

For more on vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.