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Aaron Sorkin Says ‘Being the Ricardos’ Is No More a Comedy than ‘Joker’

Sorkin never expected the social media blowback on casting Nicole Kidman. Now she’s a Best Actress contender.

NICOLE KIDMAN and JAVIER BARDEM star in BEING THE RICARDOS        Photo: GLEN WILSON                            © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC

Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem in “Being the Ricardos.”

Glen Wilson/ © 2021 Amazon Cont

Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”) deserves every award he has won in theater, television, and film, but it also means he’s often perceived as an old-school establishment player. And he’s so gifted at writing that it’s hard to remember that he’s still learning how to direct movies. Sorkin wrote “Being the Ricardos” (Amazon, December 10) for someone else to direct, but ended up taking the helm of this pandemic production. His third directing gig presented a real dive off the high board.

Yet again, like his second film “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (which earned six Oscar nominations and won none), he’s shaping a true story into something dramatic, without worrying about total verisimilitude. As usual, he fretted over producer Todd Black’s idea of fictionalizing the life of “I Love Lucy” married producer-stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, ingesting tons of research until a way to frame the drama became clear. This week the movie picked up nominations from both the Critics Choice and Golden Globes for Best Actress Nicole Kidman and Best Screenplay for Sorkin.

At the first meeting with Black, Sorkin learned that Ball was accused of being a Communist, which “I never knew,” he told IndieWire over the phone. He checked around to see if anyone else knew. They didn’t. Still, it took 18 months for Sorkin to commit. “I know it’s a big commitment and could take a couple of years to write. Most of it’s going to be annoying and climbing walls and pacing around, convinced I’ll never write anything else.”

Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin

Rob Latour /Variety

Every time he and Black met, Sorkin learned another juicy tidbit, like “Desi showing up with another woman on a Confidential Magazine cover,” he said. “I had a vague knowledge of the pregnancy, it was a big deal that Lucy was pregnant, but I didn’t know the extent of it. I had always heard you were not allowed to use the word pregnant on the show. Philip Morris Tobacco, who paid for the show, their reasoning was nuts; it was sexist, misogynistic, it was crazy. Television was in its infancy. Nobody knew what they were doing. Lucy and Desi were pioneers in that area.”

Sorkin read a dozen or so mediocre books written about the showbiz couple, but he admired Arnaz’s 1976 autobiography “A Book,” he said. “Desi is a terrific storyteller. He doesn’t mind giving you bad news. You could tell he always had a drink next to him while writing it.”

As usual, Sorkin was avoiding a familiar “greatest hits” scenario. He decided to have “the whole thing unfold during one production week,” he said, “from the Monday table read to the Friday audience taping, like a compressing of time and space. I like a claustrophobic period of time and geography, and I knew it would be difficult to tell the story I wanted to tell without going to flashbacks.”

Sorkin chose five key moments over five days, one for each day of the week. “If I choose the right moments and write them well so the five moments add up to something, I’m not falling back into the biopic ‘this happened’ trap,” he said. “It’s all aiming toward ‘I Love Lucy’ and the problem in the marriage, and Lucy’s solution is ‘I Love Lucy.’ As long as I had that structure, I felt like I might have a chance of writing a good screenplay. That’s what I’m looking for, like a baseball player looking for a pitch with a good chance of hitting it.”

“Being the Ricardos”

Amazon Studios

So he threw the news of Ball’s pregnancy, the Red scare, and Arnaz’s infidelity, which took place over a span of two years, into one week in September 1952. “Those three were all interesting to me,” he said, “they were points of friction and conflict, so I can write scenes that add up to something.”

Sorkin wrote the first draft before “Chicago 7” started production. And when he went back to it, he understood that even today, millions of people around the globe still harbor an intense attachment to these household names from the ’50s. “So much so,” he said, “that I found people have a lot of difficulty separating Lucy and Ricky from Lucille and Desi. That frankly interested me, because Desi and Lucy are considerably more complicated than Ricky and Lucy. They have an intense sexual relationship.” When Lucie Arnaz, the couple’s daughter, gave Sorkin home movie footage so he could see her parents hanging out by the pool, he said, “Lucille’s a Hollywood starlet, beautiful and sexy, which wasn’t something you could do on television.”

Ball agreed to turn her hit radio show “My Favorite Husband” into a TV show on one condition. “She yearned for domesticity,” said Sorkin. “Desi wasn’t around that much, he was touring with his orchestra. Lucy had to be in L.A., she wanted her marriage to work, she wanted a family. She wanted Desi to play her husband, which was not a crazy idea. She would go out and meet Desi and the orchestra on weekends; he’d call her up on stage to do bits that the writers had written and audiences loved it. There was reason to believe the idea would work. ‘I Love Lucy’ exists to save the marriage.”

“Being the Ricardos”

Amazon Studios

Once he got the greenlight to direct at Amazon Studios, Sorkin knew the greatest degree of difficulty was finding the right cast — and the flashbacks. That’s because he did not want to use different actors for the younger versions of Lucy and Desi, which mean using de-aging CGI. And as usual, Sorkin the director is more comfortable within the confines of a soundstage than he is on any exterior set. “Flashbacks outside Ciro’s, on Mulholland, at the swimming pool, any of those,” he said, “even as a writer as soon as I write ‘EXT’ I start getting nervous.”

Sorkin is still gobsmacked at the blowback against casting Oscar winner Nicole Kidman (“The Hours”). “I had no idea, absolutely none,” he said. “What did I know? People would assume the movie was something different than what was. They assumed the role was Lucy Ricardo. People have a difficult time separating those two people. I don’t use Twitter as my casting director. I use Francine Maisler.”

Off the bat, Sorkin told his actors that he was not looking for an impersonation of Lucille Ball (Kidman), Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), William Frawley (J.K. Simmons), or Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda). When they recreated snippets of the show, “in those moments you see shards of ‘I Love Lucy,'” he said, “they’re going to have to tip their cap to those characters. As far as the real people, go play the characters that are in the script, and don’t tie your hands with trying to do a decent impersonation of Lucy or Desi; I don’t think there’s anything there for you.”

Nicole Kidman, "Being the Ricardos"

Nicole Kidman, “Being the Ricardos”

Amazon Studios

For one thing, Sorkin was not making a comedy. “This is no more a comedy than the ‘King of Comedy’ or ‘Joker’ is a comedy,” he said. “There are moments and laughs in the movie. Those laughs don’t come from ‘I Love Lucy,’ they come from Lucille Ball, who had a dry and withering sense of humor, scares the hell out of the people when she comes down to the table read, says to the director, ‘I’m hazing you, Donald, it’s just my way of saying I have no confidence in you.'”

Over the course of a 41-day shoot, two of those days were ‘I Love Lucy.’ “On those days it was like, no homework,” said Sorkin. “Nicole was happy to dive into a vat of grapes and look at the playback monitor and do what Lucille Ball was doing. She came to work knowing every square inch, that’s what she had been working on for months while Javier was doing his homework. She couldn’t do enough takes.”

Sorkin fell in love with Bardem on a Zoom call “in a minute and a half,” he said. “He’s got Desi’s charisma, energy, and sense of humor. He lied all through the meeting. Actors know if you ask can they ride a horse to say ‘yes.’ Toward the end of the meeting the deal breaker? ‘I’ve been playing guitar since I was three, I banged on the drum kit, I’m a great dancer.’ In the months leading to production he hired someone to teach him how to bang on the conga, became an expert rhumba-er. That’s all him, we’re not sweetening him.”

Some of the best scenes in the movie are the table reads, where you see Ball’s genius at what Sorkin calls “comedic chess.” “Lucy and Desi were affectionate with each other, they were a team,” said Sorkin. “All those ‘I Love Lucy’ shards were coming out of her head in the writers’ room. She had that ability to project ahead to Friday night, how the joke was going to work. Then there’s the performative Lucy, who she is in front of an audience. There is a fourth that is Lucy at home, she yearned for domesticity, which is something she couldn’t get because of this tragic flaw Desi had. He needed to go someplace where he wasn’t second banana, while Lucy in the middle of the night is doing laundry because she likes it.”

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