Aaron Sorkin's Lucille Ball
I’ve always had a closer connection to actresses than actors, and that is in large part due to Lucile Ball. In the era of broadcast television, I knew her first as Lucy Carmichael. The Lucy Show ran in reruns in the afternoon after school. I was about eight years old before I knew anything about I Love Lucy, but it took the invention of VHS for me to experience them and for Lucille Ball to become part of my theatrical DNA.
I’m not just talking about Ball’s sense of comedy. I’m talking about Ball’s grit and strength. I never confused Lucille with Lucy. One of the first industry books I ever read was about the making of I Love Lucy. From that book I came to appreciate Lucy, but it sparked a lifelong worship of Lucille Ball. For a gay kid from the cornfields of Iowa, the story of a scrappy actress triumphing and then literally owning the studio that rejected her was balm for the soul.
When Being the Ricardos was announced, I was a bit dismayed at the casting, but was actually more annoyed with the writer/director. I’m a fan and student of Aaron Sorkin’s work. I haven’t seen it all. The West Wing grates on my nerves a bit, and I’ve missed some of his fleeting television series. Many times his style overwhelms the dialogue. His characters are all smart, self-aware, and they’re exceedingly articulate, but all in the same way. A Few Good Men is a masterpiece. The Newsroom is a well-meaning but flawed series that is well worth the time to study. Sorkin was the only writer to tell Zuckerberg’s story in The Social Network. Sorkin’s telling of To Kill a Mockingbird is effective, reverential even, but it’s still Aaron Sorkin’s Mockingbird, not Harper Lee’s. Never, in a million years, would I have picked Aaron Sorkin to tell Lucille Ball’s story. Lucille and Desi were smart people – natural geniuses born of necessity and experience; plain spoken and utterly charming. Sorkin's work is baroque to the point of nearly being arch. Ball, and to a lesser extent Arnaz, were able to contextualize their egos, putting them in service of a larger goal. Sorkin’s ego can outshine the work.
And after seeing the film, I stand by my claim that a woman should have written that script. Sorkin has (rightly) been criticized for his female characters. Going all the way back to A Few Good Men Sorkin’s women are smart, but they almost always live in a black and white, male-dominated world. Any nuance, any fragility, any weakness in those worlds is relegated to the women. That remains true in Being the Ricardos. Historically Desi’s was the fragile ego, but in this telling it’s Lucille’s insecurities that are centered. The film gives Arnaz credit for coming up with the idea that saves the day, but historical analysis suggests that it's just as likely Ball was the real hero. Sorkin leaves his audience with no idea that it was Ball who went on to make history as the first woman to head a production studio and shape the television landscape for a generation. In Sorkin's world, Arnaz is the flawed hero and Ball is the understanding, long-suffering little woman who hides her light under a bushel so that her man can shine.
A woman would have told a better story.
Nicole Kidman is a counterintuitive choice to play Lucille Ball. Ball was a Clark Bar. Kidman is spun sugar. I am an enormous fan of Kidman’s work and have studied all of her major performances. At the heart of her best performances is that innate delicacy, and I'm not talking about physical appearance. Most of her performances are about a delicate woman in a circumstance that requires her to overcome that delicacy. Many of her performances have required a technical proficiency most film actors are not capable of producing with any nuance. Kidman's physical work here is adequate, but her vocal work is nothing short of astounding. And her emotional work gives Ball more nuance than is ever displayed in one of her performances. Ball was a smart woman who was capable of emotional generosity, but she was anything but delicate. Kidman’s natural delicacy translates into an emotional intelligence that isn’t evident in Sorkin's script. Nicole Kidman was the only actor to play Aaron Sorkin’s Lucille Ball.