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It’s always a kick to encounter a documentary about a subject after you’ve seen the deluxe scripted and acted Hollywood version. “Lucy and Desi,” Amy Poehler’s film about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz — their love, their showbiz partnership, their revolutionary influence on the creative landscape of television, their meshing and clashing spirits — is a nimble and fascinating documentary. But I suspect I’ll be far from alone in experiencing it through the lens of Aaron Sorkin’s “Being the Ricardos,” especially given the awards heat that was shined on that film this week. “Lucy and Desi” gives you the real story, so it’s only natural that you want to compare notes.
What did “Being the Ricardos” get right and wrong? Given that Sorkin’s film compresses three major story arcs — the public accusation that Lucy was a Communist; the attempt to turn her pregnancy into the plotline of “I Love Lucy’s” second season; and Lucy’s mounting anger and stress over tabloid reports that Desi was fooling around on her — into a single week of 1951, you could say that the film was never pretending to be all that accurate. Yet there’s still a desire to judge its essential authenticity.
Here’s the verdict, at least as rendered by “Lucy and Desi.” Sorkin trumped up a number of things — most dramatically, the battle between Lucy and Desi and the CBS network brass over whether her pregnancy could be included in the show. According to the documentary, Jess Oppenheimer, the producer and head writer of “I Love Lucy,” is the one who interfaced with the executives about trying out this radical idea, and they agreed to it; there was no battle. So that’s one sobering reality check.
There are a few others, like this crucial factor in Lucy and Desi’s marriage. The two met, in 1940, on the set of the RKO musical “Too Many Girls,” and they had a whirlwind courtship, just as “Ricardos” depicts. But after they were married, Desi’s career as an actor at MGM fizzled. He was in the Army for three-and-a-half years, and then went on the road, touring with his band, for the next five. According to Lucy in the documentary, he was basically absent for eight-and-a-half of the first nine years of their marriage. This does a lot to explain why their relationship developed into a business partnership.
Once you get past all that, as well as a handful of standard dramatic liberties that Sorkin took, what you discover is that “Being the Ricardos” is actually remarkably true to the spirit and letter of the Lucy and Desi story. Lucy, who died in 1989, gave many interviews that we hear in the documentary in which she speaks frankly, with that what-the-heck-let’s-just-say-it spirit of hers, about how she and Desi collaborated — the kinship and tension that defined them. She says that he had no rival as a script editor. But as a power player, he liked to be on top.
Lucy, by contrast, is strikingly modest about her own gifts. Arriving in New York City in the late ’20s, when she was a teenager eager to make it in show business, she started off as a dud of a showgirl. But she succeeded as a model and, ironically, was asked to join a team of a dozen showgirls heading out to Hollywood in 1933 to shoot a Samuel Goldwyn picture called “Roman Scandals.” (Since she was a last-minute replacement, there was no time to test her and find out that she couldn’t dance.)
The shoot was supposed to take six weeks but instead took six months. And during it she fell in love with Hollywood. She adored the process. As an RKO contract player, she was enthusiastic about the B movies she was making, because to her it was all a learning experience. Meanwhile, Desi, whose family had a link to the Bacardi rum empire, saw his clan torn apart in Cuba by the 1933 revolution. He came to the U.S. as a refugee who spoke no English. But he connected with the bandleader Xavier Cugat (raised in Cuba), who took Desi under his wing. Desi’s glorious Latin Lover face was his passkey; he also had a sixth sense for how to reconfigure the musical idioms of his homeland. He invented the conga as we know it, and in his flying-hair performances of “Babalu” could get as wild as Little Richard.
His marriage to Lucy had a glimmer of scandal, since as “Lucy and Desi” points out, this relationship, between a budding star who looked like Lucille Ball and a man of color, was rare enough to raise eyebrows. But Lucy and Desi were devoted, and believed in family; each took care of at least one of their parents for most of their lives. And their own family was stitched into the fabric of showbiz. The gossip titan Walter Winchell, who had spies in doctors’ offices, knew Lucy was pregnant before she did. (She learned about it from a Winchell broadcast.) When CBS offered Lucy and Desi a show, it wasn’t specified what the show would be; they came up with the idea of turning it into a version their own lives. That’s part of what made “I Love Lucy” a phenomenon — the relatability of it. The other part, of course, was that Lucy proved to be a physical comedian with a visionary spirit of kooky chaos. She was like the world’s sneakiest mime, and used her body to act out everything that women of the time had to keep under wraps.
Lucy, in the documentary, claims to be less a natural comedian than a “scientist” of comedy. But one of the doc’s critical commentators, Laura LaPlaca, compares her to Chaplin and Keaton, and what you see, in the perfectly chosen clips that Poehler sprinkles throughout the film, is that Lucy was the first woman comedian to make herself into the knockabout, rag-doll center of an everyday world. That she accomplished this not within the dreamy aesthetics of silent film but on a sitcom, at the heart of the “Father Knows Best”/”Donna Reed Show” era, is a testament to her practical feminist madcap genius. She worked in the mainstream form given to her and made it her own.
“Lucy and Desi” captures how Lucy and Desi turned “I Love Lucy” into an extension of their family life that was designed to sustain it. The show was their projected psychodrama. Says David Daniels in the film, “‘I Love Lucy’ built every episode around that idea of fracture, and then coming back together.” But the show also consumed them. After it had run for five years, they sold the rights to 179 episodes for $5 million (a staggering amount in 1957). Desi may not have innovated the three-camera system (though the idea that he did persists), but he and Lucy more or less invented the rerun. (That was a sea change for television.)
Why did they break up? Desi’s adultery, which Lucy always knew about, was part of it. But the film says that Desi couldn’t handle the attention that gathered around Lucy, the star clown. He was totally overshadowed. To compensate, he became consumed by the producer side of things. He worked harder, drank more, and needed more escape, more time on his boat or on golf vacations or at the race track. Their follow-up show, “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour,” marked a major step down in quality, yet their empire kept getting bigger. They bought RKO, which became the largest independent television company in the world, and Desi became an 8:00-a.m.-to-11:00-p.m overworked executive. And he was still acting.
In the end, Lucy and Desi were married to other people — Gary Morton, Edith Hirsch — far longer than they were married to one another. But as Lucy and Desi, they became a myth. Lucy aged gracefully, more so than Desi, who the film says never totally got over his break with Cuba. There’s a clip of Lucy receiving an Emmy in 1967, and she seems as honestly shocked, as vulnerably human, as any entertainment award recipient I’ve ever seen. We also hear a story from their daughter, Lucy Arnaz Luckinbill, about how Lucy went to visit Desi in Del Mar when he was dying of lung cancer, and Luckinbill did what she calls “the goofiest thing”: She put on old “I Love Lucy” episodes and let them watch the shows together. (She heard their laughter through the door.) That’s the most moving moment in the film, because it reminds us that Lucy and Desi, through their true and complicated love, joined forces to create a place where Lucille Ball could become an artist of television. Even after separating, they retained their love for each other, and maybe that’s because they believed in the Ricardos too. “Lucy and Desi” is a captivating record of how they turned a sitcom into a national dream.