After Aaron Sorkin’s biopic Being The Ricardos, starring Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem, a new film tributes the life and work of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz: Lucy And Desi. This documentary — available on Amazon Prime from March 4th — is a love letter to a legendary comedienne, made by a contemporary woman who also navigates the field of comedy, Amy Poehler. In fact, the film marks the directorial debut of Saturday Night Live anchorwoman who has gathered under her belt a Golden Globe, a Critic’s Choice Award and an Emmy.
The feminist angle in Poehler’s film is very present, since Lucille Ball’s outstanding career attests how she was trailblazing for her day. The I Love Lucy American television sitcom broke down the deadlock of its era and dismantled the patriarchal cliché. If women were portrayed on the small and big screen as dutiful and subservient wives, Lucy was the dominant character, the matriarch. Whilst the character of Ricky Ricardo played by Arnaz, would give into Lucy’s whims, in the real world Desi demonstrated great sense of initiative and protection towards his family. He became a producer and was instrumental in building the empire he shared with his wife and even came up with production practices that are still used today, such as re-runs, a live audience in a tv show and product placement. The sit-com, that first begun as a radio show, averaged 15 million viewers (or nearly 60% of American households) weekly at its peak.
Desi also had some clever intuitions to protect his better half. For instance, when Ball was accused of being a Communist sympathiser during the height of the second Red Scare, Araz invited the press to their home and studio to show there were no such political ties and proclaimed the famous phrase, “The only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even that’s not legitimate.” Desi even called Hoover and the entire witch hunt against his wife ended; eventually President Dwight D. Eisenhower invited Ball and the rest of the main I Love Lucy cast to celebrate his birthday in Washington.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz sailed against the current, through their personal and working interracial partnership. They were pioneering even to cast as their co-stars Vivian Vance as Ethel Mae Potter Mertz and William Frawley as Frederick “Fred” Hobart Mertz who had an important age gap for the couple they were portraying onscreen.
Besides the professional partnership, and the shared devotion to work, Lucy And Desi brings to light the values the couple had in common. They were both fondly attached to family and brought their respective relatives to Hollywood, to keep them close. Despite the different cultural and social backgrounds, their work ethic was identical. Arnaz was a refugee from Cuba, who came from a prominent family and had lost everything in exile. He reinvented himself as a band leader and actor. When he first met ‘The Queen of the Bs,’ on the set of RKO musical Too Many Girls, Lucy had worked relentlessly to conquer her place in the sun, walking up the ladder as a model, Goldwyn Girl and actress.
Lucille and Desi lived a passionate love story, that lead them to have two children, and create their own studio, the Desilu Productions. This was the second-largest independent television production company in the United States that produced popular shows such as Star Trek, Mission Impossible, The Dick Van Dye Show and many more, including of course I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show. Desilu became and remained the number-one independent production company, until it was sold in 1968.
Despite their divorce, and the fact that the marriages with their new partners lasted longer than theirs (Ball was married to Gary Morton for 28 years and Arnaz to Edith Hirsch for 22 years), their bond remained indissoluble through time. Just days after Desi Arnaz passed away in December of 1986, Lucille Ball was tributed at The Kennedy Center Honors. Arnaz had written a letter for her, to be read aloud during the ceremony for all to hear, that praised her as the pillar of the show and concluded with: “I Love Lucy was never just a title.”
Lucy And Desi, written by Mark Monroe, features interviews with the offspring of Lucy and Desi — Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill and Desi Arnaz Jr. — as well as illustrious representatives from the world of entertainment like Bette Midler, Carol Burnett, Laura LaPlaca, Eduardo Machado, Charo, Journey Gunderson, Gregg Oppenheimer, David Daniels and Norman Lear. Their anecdotes provide an insightful and meaningful peek behind the curtain of an ordinary couple who happened to be extraordinarily groundbreaking.
Final Grade: B