It seems that Lucille Ball, star of I Love Lucy, is still as popular today as she was in her heyday. Not only are the shows popular on streaming platforms, but she is the inspiration for a film and documentary, both currently in production.
Still a star
On August 6, 2021, Lucille Ball would have celebrated her 110th birthday. Sadly, she passed away in April 1989, and in a tribute to her, Variety’s Tom Gilbert is quoted as saying: “Ball’s elastic facial expressions and precise comic timing catapulted her into an American institution.”
That statement still seems to be accurate today since, although Ball is no longer with us, her popularity continues to be high. She’s not only the inspiration for so many modern comedians, she’s also finding new audiences on streaming platforms such as Paramount+, Hulu, and Amazon.
An innovative and savvy businesswoman
People remember Ball not just for her hilarious shows, but also for her role as a TV icon. She was named “the first lady of television” at an Academy of Television Arts & Sciences event in 1969.
Before her TV breakthrough, Ball had been starring in a radio show for CBS called My Favorite Husband. When the show proved a hit, CBS decided to move it to television. Despite concerns about showing multi-ethnic marriages on TV at that time, Ball insisted that her husband Desi Arnaz, a Cuban-born bandleader, play her husband onscreen too. The network was swayed by the fact that Ball and Arnaz toured the country with a smash-hit cabaret act.
CBS wanted to film the series live in New York, but Ball and her husband didn’t want to leave their five-acre property on the West Coast. The couple agreed to take a pay cut in return for shooting the series on film and getting full ownership of the episodes after airing.
The show was an instant hit, repaying all of the couple’s investment and faith. Ball and Arnaz formed the production company Desilu. The company not only bought several studio lots, but it also went on to become a powerhouse in the industry, being involved in shows like Star Trek and Mission: Impossible.
A rocky relationship
I Love Lucy ended its run on CBS in 1960. At the same time, Ball decided to divorce Arnaz. Sources close to the couple often say how tough the relationship was between them.
However, their relationship has sparked the production of a new film called Being the Ricardos. In early 2021, it was revealed that Nicole Kidman will play Lucille Ball while Javier Bardem is slated to play Desi Arnaz. Aaron Sorkin is both writer and director.
The title is taken from the names of the characters Ball and Arnaz played in the I Love Lucy show: Lucy Ricardo and Ricky Ricardo. However, the focus of the film will be the unraveling of the real-life relationship between Ball and Arnaz, taking place during a Monday night table read and live audience shoot of an I Love Lucy episode.
Lucie Arnaz, Ball and Arnaz’s daughter, has confirmed: “There will be humor in the film, but it is a story of the two of them and how they met and what went right with finding the show, what went wrong, their relationship, their love affair.”
Controversy over Kidman’s casting
When it was announced that Nicole Kidman would be portraying Lucille Ball, fans instantly took to social media to say that Debra Messing should play Ball instead. They pointed to the fact that Messing had given a very impressive portrayal of Ball in a reenactment of the famous Vitameatavegamin commercial. Watching Messing’s performance (above) and how she captures Ball’s epic facial comedy talents, it’s easy to see how she could be a favorite casting choice.
In an interview with Chris Rock for Variety, Kidman has commented: “The strange thing about Lucille Ball is that everyone thinks we’re remaking the I Love Lucy show, and it’s not that. It’s about Lucy and Desi and their relationship and their marriage.”
Lucie Arnaz also took to Facebook to support the casting decision. “We are not doing a remake of I Love Lucy. No one has to impersonate Lucy Ricardo nor do the Vitameatavegamin routine, or the chocolate factory routine or any of the silly things. It’s the story of Lucille Ball, my actual mother, not Lucy Ricardo, and her husband, Desi Arnaz, my dad, not Ricky Ricardo.”
Documentary about “complicated and loving” relationship
As well as returning to the big screen, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are also the subjects of an upcoming documentary.
Amy Poehler is known for her work on Saturday Night Live as well as Parks and Recreation. Now, she’s turning her hand to documentary making, and has chosen Ball and Arnaz’s relationship as her topic.
The working title is Lucy & Desi, and the documentary will be the biggest to be fully financed by Imagine Documentaries. Most importantly, Poehler has the full support of not only the estates of the couple but also their remaining family. The documentary will have access to previously unseen film stills and writings.
Speaking of why she chose Lucy and Desi as the focus of her first documentary, Poehler said: “[O]f course, I’m a fan of her comedy. But I’m also very inspired by her story and what kind of woman she was in business, and what kind of culture she was in when she was making the show, and the relationship between her and her husband Desi Arnaz, and how interesting and complicated and loving it was.”
Justin Wilkes, president of Imagine Documentaries, is quoted as saying: “As television’s long-reigning ‘First Family’, Lucy and Desi blazed a revolutionary trail through the cultural landscape that laid the groundwork for so much of the entertainment industry as we now know it. They created so many television firsts – not only in their portrayal of a multi-ethnic marriage or Lucy’s on-air pregnancy but as the first woman to head a studio and the creators of television syndication. It’s such an
incredibly rich, inspiring and entertaining story and we’re honored to bring it to the screen.”
Even though Here’s Lucy, the third of the ‘Lucy’ shows to be made, ended its run in 1974, both the shows and Ball herself continue to be cherished today.
Lucie Arnaz has an idea of why the show might still appeal to audiences in an age of blockbuster movies and big-budget TV series.
“It’s not just funny,” she said. “It’s so full of unconditional love. When we turn it on, we can laugh, but at the end, we also feel like it’s OK to screw up and somebody is going to still love you anyway. I think we all need to know that, and this show gives you that every single time you watch it.”