Why 'Being the Ricardos' Focused on These 'I Love Lucy' Episodes (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin and starring Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz, Being the Ricardos is set during one week of production as the couple films an episode of I Love Lucy. The season 1 episode, “Fred and Ethel Fight,” is just one of three episodes partially recreated onscreen, while the film refers to two other key moments from the series as it jumps back and forth through time to show the couple dealing with major developments in their lives.
While everything from Ball’s pregnancy and accusations that she was a communist to Arnaz’s cheating scandal all happened -- it just didn’t take place in the same week. According to Sorkin, who previously wrote and directed The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Molly’s Game, the truth is more important than accuracy. And given that he focused on those real-life, behind-the-scenes moments during I Love Lucy’s six-season run from 1951 to 1957, it’s worth noting the episodes, including season 3’s “Lucy Tells the Truth” and season 5’s “Lucy’s Italian Movie,” featured onscreen here.
“You see the pressure of a marriage and working together at that time and all of the things that happened being compressed into a week, which is the one dramatic license Aaron Sorkin took,” Kidman explained to ET, adding that everything that happened to them at the time was “riveting.”
“And at then at the same time having to put on a comedy that was watched by millions and millions,” Tony Hale added. “So, that pressure and being a woman, heading up the show, and being in such a powerful position back then was such a powerful thing that she did.”
When it comes to “Fred and Ethel Fight,” which is at the center of Being the Ricardos as it shows the production going from its first table read to finally filming in front of a live studio audience, Sorkin said he “wanted to show Lucy as the smartest comedic mind in the room.”
“’Fred and Ethel Fight’ had the most opportunities for Lucy to ask leading questions about what’s going on,” he added.
In the episode, which is largely an ensemble piece also involving Vivian Vance (played here by Nina Arianda) and William Frawley (J.K. Simmons), Lucy attempts to patch up Ethel and Fred’s marriage after they get into a big fight. But her efforts backfire, leading her and Ricky to get into a fight of their own and both going to extremes -- she fakes getting hit by a bus while he pretends the apartment is on fire – to get the other to apologize.
And it opens with Ricky sneaking up behind Lucy as she sets the dining table and plays a game of “Guess Who.” It’s a setup that Ball disagrees with during the production of the episode, sparring on set with producer Jess Oppenheimer (Hale) as well as the writing team of Madelyn Pugh (Alia Shawkat) and Bob Carroll Jr. (Jake Lacy), who co-wrote every episode of I Love Lucy.
That eventually leads to a private confrontation between Ball and Pugh, who pushes back on the star for her characterization of Lucy and how it portrays women onscreen. As the two disagree over the joke, Pugh reminds Ball “why it’s so important to have representation,” Shawkat said, referring to the writers’ room. “It makes the quality of the projects different because it’s people who are writing from their own experience. So, having Madelyn in that room added to the kind of timeless experiences of I Love Lucy, which is still so funny to this day. There’s nothing dated about it.”
In the end, the joke as written stayed in the episode, which is what audiences can still watch today. But the moment demonstrated just how involved Ball was and how pivotal she was to landing the biggest laughs. When it came to that episode, she even went so far as to work with Frawley and Vance on the dinner scene after hours just so they got it right on the day of filming.
Other scenes recreated onscreen are from “Lucy Tells the Truth,” in which Lucy makes a bet with everyone that she won’t tell a lie for an entire day and subsequently gets herself into trouble by being too honest. Of course, being brutally frank with everyone is what Ball finds herself doing in the movie as she finds herself on edge after news gets out she once checked “Communist” on a voter registration card. And unlike Lucy, Ball herself can’t tell a lie, even if fudging the truth in this instance would save her career.
The last episode highlighted at length is “Lucy’s Italian Movie,” in which Lucy learns how to stomp grapes to make wine after traveling to Italy. It’s an iconic scene that was probably most accurately recreated in the film. “It looked like she was having the time of her life,” Sorkin said of Ball in the original scene. “She dove into that bath of grapes and was rolling around it all.”
“It was all fun. When I look back at it, I think the grape scene was very freeing,” Kidman said of getting to do the physical comedy bit, which is one of the things Ball did best. “What she was able to accomplish with nothing and the idea of stomping some grapes is so, so funny. It still holds up.”
She added, “To have a chance to work on that was freeing for me as a person.”
When it comes to choosing that moment over, say, the chocolate factory one in season 2’s “Job Switching” or the Vitameatavegamin pitch in season 1’s “Lucy Does a Commercial,” Sorkin said he had to pick one. “I didn’t want to do all the greatest hits,” Sorkin said, ultimately zeroing in on key moments that related to or paralleled what was happening in real life. “I felt like the chocolate factory was too obvious.”
Another moment that may have initially felt too obvious and wasn’t included in the first draft of the script was Arnaz’s performance of “Babalu,” which was Ricky’s signature song on the show. While a staple on I Love Lucy, the tune was originally part of Arnaz’s musical act and was seen in the 1946 short film Desi Arnaz and His Orchestra.
But thankfully, it made it in due to Bardem’s insistence. “I said we have to make it. Also, I play drums, so the congas thing I wasn’t worried about playing,” he said, revealing that he got special instructions from musician Walfredo Reyes Jr., who has played alongside Santana and Chicago. “So, I got that covered. It was the singing part that took a little effort.”
Perhaps the biggest episode that hangs over the entire film is one that’s not even seen. And that is season 2’s “Lucy Is Enceinte,” in which Lucy reveals that she’s pregnant with her and Ricky’s first child together. Much of the conflict throughout the movie is whether or not Ball can appear pregnant onscreen, something that’s never happened in the history of TV before.
While Arnaz and Ball ultimately win over the network’s pushback against confirming or showing the pregnancy, the word “pregnant” was not allowed to be used on-air. And so part of the humor in the episode is that every time Lucy tries to tell Ricky she gets interrupted, and the episode ends with Ricky performing the song, “We’re Having a Baby.”
The decision to include Ball’s pregnancy on the show proved to be a success. By the time Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky in “Lucy Goes to the Hospital,” over 70 percent of all American homes tuned in to watch -- a record not broken until Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show four years later. “The fact that she carried a child, a pregnancy for America to see and experience. That was groundbreaking,” said Linda Lavin, who portrays an older version of Pugh. Coincidentally, Pugh went on to produce Lavin’s breakthrough sitcom, Alice, years later -- and make more television history.
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