History | December 13, 2021
Aaron Sorkin’s new film dramatizes three pivotal moments in the lives of comedy legends Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz
Associate Editor, History
Few gossip columnists wielded as much influence in mid-20th century Hollywood as Walter Winchell, a syndicated newspaper writer and radio commentator known for his scintillating indictments of prominent public figures. As political winds shifted between the 1930s and ’50s, Winchell targeted celebrities for offenses both real and imagined. Aviator Charles Lindbergh, for instance, attracted the columnist’s ire for espousing anti-Semitic views and expressing his support for the Nazis. Winchell also accused French performer Josephine Baker, who spoke out against racial discrimination in New York City, of harboring communist sympathies. Perhaps most surprisingly to modern audiences, the media tastemaker even singled out television icon Lucille Ball.
Known for her career-making turn as Lucy Ricardo, the ditzy star of the CBS sitcom “I Love Lucy,” Ball skyrocketed to fame when the show premiered in the fall of 1951. She attracted Winchell’s unwelcome attention two years later, in September 1953, when she was questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as part of its quest to root out communism in the entertainment industry. Tuning in to the radio personality’s Sunday evening broadcast from her ranch in California’s San Fernando Valley, the actress heard Winchell offer up a scandalous “blind item”: “The top television comedienne has been confronted with her membership in the Communist Party!” Initially reluctant to identify herself as the comedienne in question, Ball changed her tune after publicist Howard Strickling suggested that Winchell was referring to comic Imogene Coca. “I resent that, Howard,” she reportedly declared. “Everyone knows that I’m the top comedienne!”
Ball’s brush with the so-called Red Scare is one of three central conflicts dramatized in Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos, a new biopic that unfolds over five days in September 1952. The Trial of the Chicago 7 writer and director condenses the historical timeline for dramatic effect, placing the 1953 communism scandal, Ball’s 1952–53 pregnancy with son Desi Arnaz, Jr. and the 1955 publication of a tabloid article detailing Desi’s “wild night out” within the same week. Featuring Nicole Kidman as Ball and Javier Bardem as her husband Desi Arnaz, the Amazon Studios film strives to reveal a previously unseen side of the famous couple’s personal and professional relationship. As Sorkin tells Entertainment Weekly, “The only thing better than a story people don’t know is a story that people think they know but they’re wrong.”
Here’s what you need to know ahead of the movie’s arrival on Amazon Prime Video on December 21. Being the Ricardos is currently playing in theaters.
In short, yes, but with an altered timeline and dramatic license typical of a historical drama. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Sorkin, who wrote and directed Being the Ricardos, centers the action around the filming of a single “I Love Lucy” episode, “Fred and Ethel Fight.” J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda play William Frawley and Vivian Vance, whose characters, Fred and Ethel Mertz, respectively, lend the episode its title.
The movie follows the sitcom’s cast from a Monday table read to a Friday taping in front of a live audience. Behind the scenes, the stars must navigate a series of crises, including potentially career-ending accusations of communist ties, reports of Arnaz’s infidelity and CBS’ response to Ball’s pregnancy. Interspersed with these events are flashbacks to the early days of Ball and Arnaz’s relationship and black-and-white scenes from “I Love Lucy” that showcase the actress’ comedic, visionary genius.
When writing the script, Sorkin drew on Arnaz’s autobiography and home movie footage provided by the couple’s daughter, Lucie Arnaz, who gave the director permission to “take the gloves off” and portray her parents in all their complexity. “Ball could be really tough and difficult,” says Kathleen Brady, author of Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball. “She could also be thoughtful, considerate and caring. [She] had a much greater bandwidth than most human beings.”
By placing three chronologically separate events within the same week, Sorkin tells the Hollywood Reporter, he created “all of these interesting conflicts, and that’s what I’m looking for. Points of friction that add up to something that you can write about.”
Born in New York in 1911, Ball studied acting at the same school as Hollywood legend Bette Davis. Compared with star pupil Davis, Ball struggled to find her footing, with teachers telling her mother, “Lucy’s wasting her time and ours. She’s too shy and reticent to put her best foot forward.” Though Ball eventually overcame this stage fright to work as a model and actress, she failed to find success as a leading lady in Hollywood and was consigned to bit parts in B movies.
In 1940, while working on the set of the RKO film Too Many Girls, Ball formed an instant connection with Arnaz, a 23-year-old bandleader and actor whose family had fled Cuba in 1933. The couple eloped that same year and spent the better part of the next decade pursuing their respective careers. Then, in 1950, a joint opportunity arose: “My Favorite Husband,” a radio program starring Ball and Richard Denning as a husband and wife navigating the highs and lows of married life, was slated to make the jump to television—and this time around, Ball wanted her actual partner by her side.
Initially, CBS executives balked at the idea, saying, “We don’t think viewers will accept Desi, a Latin with a thick Cuban accent, as the husband of a typical, red-headed American girl like Lucille Ball.” After Arnaz and Ball took a successful vaudeville version of the show on the road, however, the network changed its tune. “I Love Lucy”—released under the auspices of the couple’s newly formed Desilu Productions—premiered on October 15, 1951, to instant acclaim.
Being the Ricardos opens around a year after the sitcom’s debut, in September 1952. Though the film suggests that a trio of crises broke out around the same time, the events in question actually took place over several years. Chronologically, the first was Ball’s pregnancy with her second child, Desi Jr. At the time, strict morality codes prohibited sexually suggestive content, including the act of procreation suggested by an expectant mother’s presence, from appearing on television. Despite being married, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo couldn’t even sleep in the same bed. Instead, they spent their nights in adjacent twin beds.
CBS was reluctant to acknowledge Ball’s pregnancy on air, and many of those involved in the show feared that it would be canceled. But Arnaz pushed back against the network’s suggestions of hiding Ball’s belly behind furniture and props, asking, “What is so wrong if she has a baby in the show as Lucy Ricardo?” Executives eventually agreed to incorporate the pregnancy into the show—on one condition. None of the characters could use the word “pregnant,” which was deemed too vulgar for television; instead, they were told to use euphemisms like “expectant” and the French term enceinte.
Broadcast on November 24, 1952, “Lucy Is Enceinte” found the title character breaking news of her pregnancy to Ricky in characteristically bumbling fashion. After learning of his impending fatherhood, Ricky sings “We’re Having a Baby (My Baby and Me)” to Lucy in a tender scene underscoring the real-life couple’s affection for each other. Ball delivered Desi Jr. via caesarean section on January 19, 1953, the same day that some 44 million Americans tuned in to welcome the birth of Ricky Ricardo Jr. Contrary to the network’s fears, the public eagerly followed both the plotline and the actual pregnancy. “Counting letters, telegrams, gifts and telephone calls, [Ball] and Desi received over one million indications of public interest—a figure never before even approached in the entertainment world,” according to Hollywood writer Eleanor Harris. Ball soon returned to work, and “Little Ricky”—played by a succession of actors throughout the show’s run—became a mainstay of the Ricardo household.
The next major crisis featured in Being the Ricardos took place in September 1953, when news of HUAC’s investigation of Ball went public. A House of Representatives committee established in 1938 to look into communist activity in the United States, HUAC initially questioned the actress in April 1952. The following September, the committee brought Ball back in, reportedly to review the statements she’d provided the previous year. After a two-hour interrogation, which was kept private, committee members told Ball that she’d been cleared of any suspected wrongdoing and assured her that her testimony would remain sealed. Two days later, however, Winchell revealed the investigation to his national audience. (“[S]omehow,” writes Brady in Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball, HUAC “let it leak out.”)
The group’s interest in the comedian stemmed from events that occurred in the mid-1930s. Early in her career, Ball had brought her family, including Fred Hunt, the grandfather who served as her father figure (her own father died when she was a child), out to Hollywood. Hunt “had a very keen sense of social justice based in part on all that he had suffered in his life” as a working man, says Brady. “He believed in [labor organizer and five-time presidential candidate] Eugene V. Debs, socialism and communism. … He told Lucille and her brother to register as communists,” and during a lunch break from filming in 1936, the actress did just that.
Ball attributed her actions to wanting to please her aging, eccentric grandfather. “I didn’t intend to vote that way,” she told investigators. “As I recall, I didn’t. … [But] we didn’t argue with [Fred] very much because he had a couple of strokes and if he got overly excited, why, he would have another one.” The star added, “In those days, [registering as a communist] was not a big, terrible thing to do. It was almost as terrible to be a Republican in those days.”
In addition to the 1936 registration record, HUAC questioned Ball about her purported appointment as a delegate to the Communist State Central Committee by known communist Emil Freed and her membership in the Committee for the First Amendment, a collective of actors and filmmakers formed in support of the “Hollywood Ten,” who were imprisoned and blacklisted in 1947 for refusing to disclose potential communist ties to HUAC. Speaking out at the time, Ball said, “The way to [defend the Constitution] is not by shutting up the man you disagree with.” Years later, she struck a more conciliatory tone, telling HUAC that she had no knowledge of Freed and failing to recall anything about her involvement with the First Amendment committee.
Though the government deemed Ball’s responses enough to clear her name, the court of public opinion presented another trial entirely. The Los Angeles Herald-Express ran a doctored photo of Ball’s registration card, omitting the section stating that she’d canceled her membership, under the all-caps headline “LUCILLE BALL NAMED RED.” Columnist Jack O’Brian predicted that Ball “will retire a lot sooner than she thinks”; a fan writing to Winchell, meanwhile, declared, “The show should be called ‘I Loathe Lucy,’ and every real American feels that way, too.” Arnaz and Ball “were terrified that the show was going to go off the air and it was going to be the end” of their careers, says Brady. “One of their dearest friends, Larry Parks, who was a rising star at the time, [had had] his life utterly destroyed by this committee. And they’d seen it [firsthand].”
After discussing the veracity of the charges with the “I Love Lucy” stars, network executives and representatives of tobacco company Philip Morris, the show’s commercial sponsor, agreed to stand by Ball. On Friday, September 11—the day when filming of the sitcom’s second season was set to commence—Arnaz addressed the controversy in front of a live studio audience. “Lucy has never been a communist—now now—and never will be,” he told the crowd, as recounted in Ball’s autobiography. “I was kicked out of Cuba because of communism. We despise everything about it. … On Saturday, the complete transcript of Lucy’s testimony will be released to the papers, and you can read it for yourself.”
Luckily for Ball, Arnaz, and the rest of the cast and crew, the audience responded with rapturous applause. Arnaz called out for his wife to join him, saying, “Now I want you to meet my favorite wife, my favorite redhead—in fact, that’s the only thing red about her, and even that’s not legitimate.” Overcome with emotion, the actress (a natural brunette) thanked the crowd, then “turned and walked back through the curtains … with tears in [her] eyes.”
Publicly exonerated by HUAC’s chairman, Representative Donald L. Jackson, that same evening, Ball held a press conference at the Desilu Ranch the following day. One reporter in attendance said, “I think we all owe Lucy a vote of thanks, and I think a lot of us owe her an apology.” Winchell himself soon walked back his comments, albeit without taking responsibility for his own role in the public relations disaster. “[T]onight,” he claimed, “Mr. Lincoln is drying his eyes for making [Ball] go through this.”
Despite its potential to bring the couple’s careers to an abrupt end, this brush with the Red Scare soon blew over. Arnaz’s direct approach to the crisis likely played a role in the quick resolution: As Brady says, “He really demanded his rights as an American, and that was something that had been denied to a lot of people [investigated by HUAC].” Ball, for her part, never voted again. “Show business was her religion and her politics,” Brady explains. “That’s what she really cared about.”
The third central conflict explored in Being the Ricardos is Arnaz’s infidelity, as chronicled in the Hollywood tabloid Confidential. In the film, Ball confronts her husband with two stories headlined “Desi’s Wild Night Out” and “Does Desi Really Love Lucy?” He initially denies the claims but eventually admits to sleeping with call girls. “They’re hookers,” he says. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
In truth, says Brady, Arnaz was a womanizer who “had many wild nights out.” He was an “extraordinary businessman” and actor but drank and gambled compulsively to cope with the pressures of his career. “He was loved around the country, of course, but he was not loved as much as Lucille Ball,” Brady adds. “And that hurt his ego enormously, as it probably would hurt anybody.”
Confidential ran “Does Desi Really Love Lucy?” as its January 1955 cover story. Filled with salacious details of Arnaz’s purported extramarital encounters, the article suggested that he had “proved himself an artist at philandering as well as acting.” It quoted Arnaz asking a friend, “What’s [Ball] upset about? I don’t take out other broads. I just take out hookers.”
When the Confidential story came out, “I Love Lucy” was nearing the midpoint of its fifth season. Ball’s publicist, Charles Pomerantz, later told People:
I gave an advance copy to Desi, and Lucy said, “I want to read this story.” It was during a rehearsal day, and she went into her dressing room. Everybody was frozen on the set. She finally came out, tossed the magazine to Desi and said, “Oh, hell, I could tell them worse than that.”
According to Darin Strauss, author of a novel about Ball, the Confidential article “is said to have drained the joy from their marriage.” The final episode of “I Love Lucy” aired on May 6, 1957. A longer-format, modified version of the series titled “The Lucy–Desi Comedy Hour” followed the Ricardo family through the end of the 1950s but drew to a close in the spring of 1960, when Ball filed for divorce.
Arnaz sold his shares in Desilu to his ex-wife in 1962, making her the first woman CEO of a major Hollywood production company. Under Ball’s leadership, Desilu developed such iconic shows as “Star Trek” and “Mission: Impossible.” The former couple remained friends until Arnaz’s death in 1986 at age 69. Ball died three years later, in 1989, at age 77.
“I realized what [Ball] was doing in terms of trailblazing for so many women and her ability to take things on and then recover from failure, which I thought was fantastic,” Kidman tells the Hollywood Reporter. “She would get up, brush herself off, with Desi’s help, and she would just move forward and tackle things. Her biggest failures turned out to be the thing that would drive her into the next success and ultimately lead her to what we know, what we revere her and revere the show and revere their art, together. What they did together is gorgeous.”
Meilan Solly is Smithsonian magazine's associate digital editor, history. Website: meilansolly.com.