Producers: Michael Rosenberg, Justin Wilkes, Jeanne Elfant Festa, Nigel Sinclair, Amy Poehler and Mark Monroe Director: Amy Poehler Screenplay: Mark Monroe Cast: Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, Desi Arnaz Jr., Carol Burnett, Bette Midler, Norman Lear, Charo, Gregg Oppenheimer, David Daniels, Eduardo Machado, Laura Laplaca and Journey Gunderson Distributor: Amazon Studios
Hard on the heels of Aaron Sorkin’s “Being the Ricardos” comes Amy Poehler’s able but conventional joint biography of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, which has an autobiographical component in that it makes extensive use of tape recordings the two made late in life. Along with lots of archival clips, including home movies, and stills, the taped recollections—as well as excerpts from an extended interview with their daughter Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill and briefer remarks by her brother Desi Jr.—make it clear that this is pretty much an “authorized” treatment of their lives; although not whitewashed hagiography, it’s certainly no hatchet job, or even deeply analytical.
But while one might have wished for something that delved deeper, Poehler, along with Mark Monroe, a prolific screenwriter whose recent scripts include documentaries on Luciano Pavarotti and the Bee Gees as well as “The Lost Leonardo,” and Robert A. Martinez, who also edited the Bee Gees film, have done a more than creditable job in covering Lucy and Desi’s childhoods, their difficult climb to success in a pretty unforgiving business, their marriage, their enormous success both as stars and entrepreneurs, and their breakup and later lives apart. Roughly the first half of the film covers a good deal of the same ground that Sorkin did, but more soberly, and without the chronological legerdemain he indulged in by telescoping widely separated events into a single chaotic week. But it shows that otherwise Sorkin really didn’t stray very far from the facts.
In its second half, “Lucy and Desi” goes past the success Arnaz had in saving “I Love Lucy” against accusations of Ball’s communist past that Sorkin ended with, covering most of her post-divorce triumphs and failures and his descent into a state of lethargy only occasionally punctuated by bursts of productivity he no longer found especially fulfilling. The overall message, though, is that despite the impossibility of their continuing to live together, they kept on loving one another to the very end. (Luckinbill movingly describes the final meeting she arranged for them as Arnaz lay near death.)
The other emphases here are fairly predictable. Ball is exalted as a perfectionist physical comedienne who, after failing to make it big in New York or Hollywood found fame in television, opening the door for feminine slapstick and paving the way for younger performers such as Carol Burnett and Bette Midler, both of whom enthuse about how she supported them early in their careers. Desi, who was forced to flee penniless to the United States as a result of the Cuban Revolution in 1933 and found a mentor in bandleader Xavier Cugat (as Cugat’s widow Charo recalls), is depicted as an astute producer who pioneered many of the innovations that made the early sitcom possible, a savvy businessman who cleared the way for his wife’s creativity.
Poehler, Monroe and Martinez move fairly nimbly through all the material, shifting back and forth in time while keeping the chronology clear and adding further interview excerpts—some archival but others newly shot by cinematographers Ernesto Lomelí and Axel Baumann with Norman Lear, the famed sitcom producer; Gregg Oppenheimer and David Daniels, descendants of those who worked with Lucy and Desi in their heyday; and Laura Laplaca and Journey Gunderson of the National Comedy Center. The result is an accessible and fairly comprehensive, if largely panegyric, overview of two of the most significant pioneers in American television history.
Still, there are some elisions. The treatment of Lucy and Desi’s foray into movies in the 1950s with “The Long, Long Trailer” (successful) and “Forever, Darling” (not)—an early indication of stars attempting to transfer their television popularity to the big screen, just as radio performers had done—is negligible, and though Ball’s later, inferior TV series and her unhappy Broadway stint in the musical “Wildcat” are covered, perhaps her greatest failure—her misguided assumption of the title role in the film version of the musical “Mame” (a boxoffice bomb) in 1974—is effectively ignored.
But the sequences of her heartfelt response to winning an Emmy in the late sixties and receiving a standing ovation at the Kennedy Honors in 1986 provide a fitting coda to what’s a well-deserved, if not very searching, tribute.