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Forgiving Aaron Sorkin

That’s what I thought I was doing as his new movie, “Being the Ricardos,” streamed across the screen. Written and directed by the prolific Sork, underwritten by Amazon Studios, starring Nicole Kidman and Jason Bardem, the movie is about crises facing Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz when their sitcom “I Love Lucy” was at the height of its popularity. 

Sorkin is the alpha male of the Hollywood “left.” He made it big in the ‘90s as the creator and head writer of “The West Wing,” a show I never watched except for one episode that exploited (and dissed) Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the Surgeon General fired by Bill Clinton for saying that marijuana was relatively benign and masturbation should be mentioned in sex ed classes. In 2014, When Sony execs Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal were outed for writing racist emails, Sork rushed to their defense with a Times op-ed contending that anyone quoting those vile emails was empowering North Korea! His previous flick, “The Trial of the Chicago Seven,” was an outrageous falsification of history.

But I had loved Lucy on Monday nights when I was 10 or 11 (and Phil Silvers as Sgt. Bilko, and the Friday Night Fights), so I hit play on The Ricardos the other night and credited myself for open-mindedness.

I soon found myself admiring Sorkin’s technical skill. He deftly provided the relevant background with pseudo-documentary interviews of I Love Lucy’s executive producer and staff writers looking back to 1953, describing the phenomenal popularity of their show. Nowadays a hit TV show attracts 10 to 15 million viewers. “I Love Lucy” drew 60 million in a smaller country. 

I appreciated the restrained way Sork spliced in black-and-white footage from the TV show to make it seem as if “Being the Ricardos” was organically connected to “I Love Lucy.” The B&W bits show how well the movie was cast. The Spanish actor Jason Bardem turns into the Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz, right down to the bongos. And Nicole Kidman’s Lucy is brilliant, brave, subversive, self-confident, and vulnerable on the love front. If anybody but Nicole Kidman gets best actress for 2021, I say “Stop the steal!” 

Sorkin’s bold move as a writer was to take challenges that the Arnazes had to face during their 20-year marriage and pretend that they all came to a head in one week of September 1953. I prefer the literal truth, but let’s grant him the right to compress the chronology. 

The two heaviest crises hit the Ricardos simultaneously on Sunday night. Confidential Magazine is about to hit the newsstands with a graphic article about Desi’s extra-marital sex life. Lucy, hurt and angry, confronts him. Desi reassures her the story is fabricated, the captions false. Forgiveness leads to fucking, and while the Arnazes are getting it on, the voice of Walter Winchell — America’s most influential gossip columnist — comes over the radio proclaiming that the most popular actress on TV has been identified as a Communist to the House Un-American Activities Committee. 

Will Lucy get blacklisted? Will the show be dropped by its sponsors, Philip Morris and Westinghouse? 

Monday is the first reading of the script for next week’s show. Sorkin knows all about the production process, so the glimpses we get are realistic. (“My Favorite Year,” in which Peter O’Toole plays a guest star on the Sid Caesar show, shows a much funnier bunch of writers pitching jokes to one another.) The script calls for Lucy to bring about reconciliation between Fred and Ethel Mertz, the Ricardos’ neighbors, who have been feuding. Lucy dislikes the director, tells him he doesn’t understand that her specialty is “physical comedy.” She questions the logic of the script and the blocking of the action. It’s as if her future is riding on the success of the upcoming episode. 

Lucy and Desi meet with executives and lawyers from CBS and their corporate sponsors. Desi tells the assembled White Men in Suits that Lucy has already been grilled by the House Un-American Activities Committee and cleared. (A HUAC lawyer had flown out to LA for “a private hearing” with the comedienne). Desi doesn’t want Lucy explaining that she really did register as a Communist in the 1936 election, out of respect for her beloved grandfather, a well-intentioned “friend of the working man” who had raised her after her father died. Sorkin uses a line from Lucy’s autobiography — being a Communist in ‘36, she tells the corporate execs, was “not much worse than being a Republican.” Desi’s line is that Lucy naively “checked the wrong box” when she registered. She is insulted and resents his dishonesty but she understands his desperation. 

There’s hope the whole scare will blow over as days go by with no red-baiting in the media. Lucy summons Ethel and Fred to a secret 2 a.m. rehearsal at which she changes the staging of some crucial business. There are scenes of Ricky leading his orchestra at Ciro’s, a Los Angeles nightclub. There is a flashback to the mid-1940s, when Lucy, after a decade of playing in B-movies, got her one and only starring role in a feature film, the kind of part usually reserved for “serious” actresses like Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, and Rita Hayworth. Her hopes are dashed when the studio doesn’t renew her contract. She turns to radio and makes a hit of a show called “My Favorite Husband.” CBS execs see how the studio audiences respond to Lucy’s expressive humor and offer her a TV version of My Favorite Husband. She insists that the male lead be her real-life husband. This leads to another crisis as the execs deem Lucy’s marriage to Desi, a Cuban, “inter-racial.” Lucy insists and prevails. (“I Love Lucy” debuted in 1951 and quickly became a huge hit.) 

The feared, explicit follow-up to Winchell’s implicit accusation comes on Friday — the day the episode is to be performed in front of a studio audience — as the Los Angeles Herald-Tribune runs a huge above-the-banner headline in red ink, “Lucille Ball a Red.” Will the sponsors pull the plug? It could be curtains for Desi-Lu productions... 

But Desi, maneuvering behind the scenes, has arranged a counter-move that takes everyone by surprise. Addressing the studio audience before the show is to begin, he puts through a phone call to an unseen man with an authoritative voice who proclaims that Lucille Ball has been cleared of any Communist taint. Desi asks the man to identify himself. The voice says “This is J. Edgar Hoover.” The audience erupts in joyous applause as love of Lucy and love of country come together. Everyone involved with the show is deliriously happy that their employment will continue — except Lucille Ball, who has just come across another woman’s lipstick on Desi’s handkerchief. 

How did I not see it coming? Ever since FBI director James Comey began investigating Donald Trump, liberals of Sorkin’s stripe have been glorifying the Bureau (and the CIA, for good measure). 

The climactic punchline of “Being the Ricardos” has no factual basis. It was concocted by Aaron Sorkin. As the great muckrakers Jack Anderson and Dale Van Atta reported in the Washington Post in 1989, “The committee (HUAC) forgave her, but J. Edgar Hoover never forgot. The FBI director continued to collect evidence about Ball, even though the FBI claims that it never officially investigated her. Our associate Scott Sleek obtained the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s secret file on Ball and her first husband, Desi Arnaz. The file contains memos stamped ‘confidential’ and addressed to Hoover. Many of the memos begin with ‘pursuant to your request,’ indicating that Hoover cared enough to keep personal tabs on Ball. Large portions of the FBI memos are blacked out because the FBI still considers them not ready for prime time. Here are some of the tidbits that FBI agents passed on to Hoover:

“The Daily Worker, a communist newspaper, alleged in 1951 that Ball was among the stars who had once been vocal in their opposition to McCarthy but then later kept their mouths shut. In February 1946, Arnaz appeared in a show sponsored by the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions, a group the FBI said was a communist front. A Hollywood writer said that in 1937 she attended a Communist Party membership meeting at Ball’s house. The writer said Ball was not there but had approved of the meeting. Hoover kept a clipping of an Associated Press story about Arnaz’s arrest in 1959 for public drunkeness. Why would the FBI director be interested in Arnaz’s police record? Hoover was notorious for collecting ammunition against his enemies to use for future face-offs, and a face-off with Arnaz was a distinct possibility. Arnaz headed Desilu Productions, which produced the TV show ‘The Untouchables.’ We have already revealed that Hoover despised the series because it credited Treasury agent Eliot Ness for feats achieved by the FBI. Hoover had his G-men monitor the show for mistakes.”

3 Comments

  1. john ignoffo December 31, 2021

    Thanks for the political back story. I tried to watch the show but couldn’t get the real characters out of my mind! Saw too many (all?) of the actual tv shows innumerable times. Kudos on your innumerable AVA articles over the years ( I especially enjoyed the DA office ones and of course the reefer stories).

  2. Michael Geniella December 31, 2021

    I grew up loving Lucy. Thanks for the back story to Sorkins’ Ricardos. It didn’t quite jell, yet I couldn’t stop watching.

  3. George Dorner December 31, 2021

    A little realized historical fact is that Hoover and “his” FBI were dueling for law enforcement eminence with another federal employee and agency–Harry Anslinger and “his” Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

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