Every woman in comedy idolizes Lucille Ball — and the men should, too — but Amy Poehler got to make a movie about her. Long an accomplished comedian, actress, producer, and director, it’s no surprise that Poehler knocked it out of the park with her first documentary directing job, the warmhearted and jam-packed “Lucy and Desi.” Though she was initially apprehensive to tackle such an oversaturated subject, Poehler was determined to make her mark with a unique angle on the beloved pair. What makes “Lucy and Desi” stand out from most biopics is its focus on Ball’s underlying humanity, including her dedication to family and relationship with her husband, “I Love Lucy” star and producer Desi Arnaz.
“One of the things I started thinking about early on was this idea that they are so famous and funny and successful, but over the years, they’ve kind of become very 2D. They almost became Halloween costumes and not people,” Poehler said in an interview during the Sundance Film Festival. “We use a lot of patriarchal language around innovators, like groundbreakers and tastemakers and geniuses and whatever. And I think sometimes we lose the humanness of people, the complicated human parts, which to me is the part I really respond to often when I’m watching docs, like human-to-human things.”
In addition to the obvious development and production of “I Love Lucy,” which the film presents wonderfully, “Lucy and Desi” also follows the timeline of Ball and Arnaz’s relationship, from how they first met to their arrival in show business from very different backgrounds. Though they eventually divorced after 20 years of marriage and building their Desilu empire, they stayed close the rest of their lives. By focusing on their relationship, Poehler found a humanizing angle into their story that provided the film’s structure.
“After learning and researching much more about [their relationship], I found it as inspiring as their work, because I think the way they spanned a lifetime and were many things to each other is very inspiring,” she said. “So I thought, ‘Is there a way we could we use that relationship as a structure in which to tell their story?’ Especially because their work for most people represented this rupture and repair, this idea of things going wrong and getting fixed.”
The production, backed by executive producer Ron Howard and White Horse Pictures, was able to secure full access to the Ball/Arnaz estate, overseen by their daughter, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill. She appears in the film, along with several legendary comedians and writers like Carol Burnett, Norman Lear, Bette Midler, and Charo. Another deliberate choice on Poehler’s part was to limit subjects interviewed in the film to people who knew Ball and Arnaz personally.
“Carol [Burnett] is a huge mentor and influence of mine. I’ve had the huge privilege of getting to know her and work with her,” Poehler said. “Norman Lear is someone I count as a mentor and friend. To be able to talk to them and Bette and Charo, people that actually had met them. Because once you get into the category of funny people talking about them being funny, then we’re into like a clip package of how great they were.”
While history will not soon forget Lucille Ball, less attention has been paid to Arnaz and his contributions to “I Love Lucy,” which were enormous as both an actor and a producer. One of the things “Lucy and Desi” does best is highlight Arnaz’s story, an unbelievable trajectory from a Cuban refugee to his position as a titan of television production.
“He was a huge innovator and experimented in the form in ways that few people did,” said Poehler. “Because he was an outsider and a disruptor, he asked questions that people weren’t asking and therefore changed the way we make TV. And the way we make TV is very similar to how Desi first shaped it. …Both he and Lucy did not look like the faces of gatekeepers in the 1950s. His story is often, at best, minimized and, at worst, like he was lucky to be on the show. And he made the show! He created the show!”
The film debunks misconceptions about Ball as well, including the idea that she was just naturally funny. In fact, Ball began her career as a contract player for RKO Pictures and MGM, where she became known as “Queen of the Bs.” After an initial radio success, Ball and Arnaz pitched “I Love Lucy” to CBS in order to spend more time together. Poehler wanted pull back the classic “rise to fame” success story that can obscure the hard work and determination it takes to get anywhere in Hollywood, especially for a woman and a man of color at that time.
“There is often this feeling that is applied to women that they’re just naturally good at things, they fell into a patch of clover and they’re just lucky and natural,” Poehler said. “And Desi also had to figure out how to deal with being a charismatic guy who grew up in a very macho culture, but who was also a very emotional and sensitive guy with a lot of feelings.”
For how large “I Love Lucy” looms in the cultural imagination, one of the most surprising revelations of the film is that the show only ran for five seasons. In today’s TV landscape, that would be a successful show but by no means as influential as “I Love Lucy” was. Both Ball and Arnaz had fruitful careers after “I Love Lucy,” with Arnaz producing “Star Trek” and “The Untouchables” under Desilu, and Ball continuing to make audiences laugh with “The Lucy Show” and “Here’s Lucy.” It’s unthinkable to imagine all the entertainment we would have missed out on had they never met.
“They were not quite getting their itch scratched…and they knew they were capable of doing more,” Poehler said. “And when they met each other, they saw that in each other. It’s kind of what you hope for in any relationship, that somebody sees the possibility of you, the width and breadth of you, and also maybe what you have yet to do.”
“Lucy and Desi” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.