I DIDN'T LOVE "LUCY"
A Review by Stuart Shostak
OK, let’s go over this once again…what are the rules for doing a TV movie/biography on two of the most beloved icons the world over, two people who fans know more about both professionally and privately than probably some of their own relatives? First, the people producing should be passionate and knowledgeable about the material so the facts are presented properly and accurately. Second, the story should be told in proper chronological order. Next, dramatic liberty should be taken only when necessary and most likely ONLY when recreating something that happened privately, when nobody else was around to transcribe an exact account. NEVER try and recreate something the public has taken to heart, has seen hundreds (perhaps thousands) of times, knows inside and out - every nuance, mannerism, movement and certainly delivery of dialogue down to the last gasp of breath and expect it to be an exact digital clone of the original. Last but certainly not least, for God’s sake, cast actors who look like or can be made to look like the people they’re portraying so the story IS accepted.
So who produced the May 4 presentation, “Lucy” on CBS? The same team that gave us the Academy Award winning “Chicago” and the same team that gave us the Judy Garland biopic on ABC last year – Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. Maybe their overall track record convinced CBS they were the ones to produce this film, despite the fact that it was painfully obvious neither knew enough or even cared enough about the lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz to undertake such a project. Even then, they could have hired writers and technical advisors to help make the project as accurate as possible.
But first things first…did this project actually NEED to be made? Wasn’t there a CBS movie produced about 13 years ago (capitalizing on the fact that Lucy had just passed away and the public was clamoring for anything Lucy at the time) that in essence told the exact same story as we saw on May 4, and just as badly? Isn’t there already at least three shelves’ worth of books written on Lucy and Desi, each basically covering the same material? Didn’t Lucie Arnaz herself produce a documentary on her parents that’s had plenty of air time and home video exposure which supposedly told their “real” story? Lucie’s project turned out in large part to be confirmations of what we already knew and read, too, but at least it was told by someone who was passionate about and certainly competent enough to produce it. So why did this movie have to be made, you ask? Ah, well, one word – RATINGS! CBS has quietly discovered that anything “Lucy” gets ratings. Remember how they milked the cow dry with the 50th Anniversary Special? That thing had more prime time airings than any of the original episodes ever did. Sure, each time the special reran the ratings went further south, but it still delivered numbers better than anything else CBS had run in those time slots previously. It was because of the special’s successful repeating performance that some genius at CBS commissioned this biopic to be made – TWO YEARS AGO! By the time this project finally got a firm green light to go into production around November of last year, a script was ready four weeks later and they shot it shortly afterward in THREE weeks…in New Zealand, of all places, with the supporting cast all Australian actors using American accents. It saves money shooting abroad…and it showed. By the way, the ratings May 4 were less than spectacular. The film won its first hour, but trailed NBC in its last two. One of those hours on NBC was filled with rerun programming, too, so maybe thankfully we’ve seen our last capitalization of Lucille Ball on CBS for a while.
There was one element to the film that I did like – the Art Director, Set Designer, costumers, and anyone else connected with the overall look of the film did a fantastic job with capturing the periods covered. I’m a little more critical about the Ricardo living room and Connecticut home sets, but I suppose they made the best of what they could shooting in New Zealand. Now that my compliments are out of the way, let’s get down to business.
First and foremost, why does every one of these movies have to be told in flashback? I pretty much predicted the opening scene – on the set of “Lucy Meets the Moustache”, with the two of them about to divorce, then going back to where it all began with Lucy in Jamestown as a wild teenager. All that opening scene needed was someone pretending to be Edie Adams singing “That’s All”, and it would have been THE true corny way to begin the flashback. Thankfully I was spared, albeit a bit surprised that my powers of clairvoyance had failed. However, after successfully dropping this wretched scenario from my mind, I was caught totally off guard later on because they saved this bit of cornball convention to END the film. I should have known better.
The producers did a pretty decent job covering Lucy’s Jamestown, New York, and early Hollywood years. As the film progressed, however, the facts and chronological timeline were played with fast and loose. Again, we’re dealing with common public knowledge due to the amount of books and previously made films on this subject, so Desi telling Lucy he wants to buy RKO in 1953 is about 4 years premature. The film then suddenly jumps ahead to 1958, skipping virtually everything in between, and Desi buys RKO. Lucy is shown saying hello to former co-workers from her movie days, then goes back to rehearsal in the original Ricardo living room set from the first two seasons! Talk about being inexcusable! Everyone knows that by this point, the half hour series was caput and the hour long specials were well into production, with the home base of the Ricardos being Connecticut. To further confuse the issue, the next scene has Lucy stomping grapes in Turo, a show filmed in 1956. In recreating the Communist incident in 1953, the writing makes it look like Desi did Lucy a favor by covering up their marriage problems and bailing her out with the press. Any basic research would have shown that not only prior to this happening was that period one of really true happiness for the Arnaz family, but that Desi PASSIONATELY supported his wife throughout the entire ordeal. On another note, I also strongly doubt that in the early planning stages of “I Love Lucy”, Jess Oppenheimer met personally with Desi to discuss how both the series should be shaped and how Desi’s character was to be molded. A simple reading of Jess’ book would have clarified that. Further, I don’t think Desi told Jess prior to the series beginning production that he really wanted to produce. It also made it seem that Jess was brought in solely to produce the TV series, when everyone knows he was head writer for “My Favorite Husband”. There were other factual inaccuracies throughout the entire film, ranging from the “live” studio audience at the final filming (the last three Lucy/Desi specials were filmed without audiences) to Lucy meeting Red Skelton during “DuBarry Was a Lady”, when in fact, they worked together previously on a film at RKO in 1938. I can go on and on about this, but there are not enough megabytes left on this web site.
Suffice it to say most of the “I Love Lucy” scene re-creations were an embarrassment and I found myself constantly cringing, although the club scene from “Lucy is Enceinte” wasn’t terrible. They at least had the decency to only show Lucy going through a mirror rehearsal from “Lucy Does a TV Commercial”. Even THEY realized they could not duplicate the timing and magic Lucy herself brought to that episode. But seeing the horrendous assembly line and grape stomping scenes through the eyes of these filmmakers made me almost reach for the remote (or a barf bag). Something that is engrained in the minds of millions of fans and is so beloved after seeing it thousands of times cannot be duplicated even remotely by anyone who is not truly passionate about it, regardless of how talented an actor happens to be. I’m not interested in how many times Rachel York studied a particular video tape to get a scene “just right”. It’s not enough…it’s never enough. Classic moments should remain classic.
Now let’s talk about the casting. Whoever decided on Rachel York and Danny Pino for the leads should be taken out back and beaten with the rugs. Forget the fact that it’s nearly impossible to clone major television icons, but it IS possible to come close. Anyone familiar with our conventions knows that Suzanne La Rusch and Adrian Israel are just dynamite as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. When the two of them perform, it’s almost like seeing the real thing – once they hook you, you’re convinced. The major problem I had with this movie (besides the factual inaccuracies which were to be expected) was that at NO TIME did I ever believe I was watching the stories of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz because they didn’t look anything like who they were supposed to be. I tried very hard to overlook that and concentrate on the acting and mannerisms, but their looks kept getting in the way. Rachel York appeared like a cross between Carol Burnett and Bette Midler and sounded more like Lucie Arnaz than Lucille Ball! Danny Pino looked more like Rick Moranis minus the glasses and with black hair than he did Desi, although he had the voice down fairly well. Whoever did his singing was pretty close, too. But Pino was way too thin, and some creative padding would have helped. Both also looked much too young, particularly in what were supposed to be the later years of their marriage. I’m sure Rachel York and Danny Pino are fine actors, but sadly here they were totally miscast. As for the supporting actors, it appeared the criterion was only Australians that could do American accents. The actress portraying Vivian Vance had a “valley girl” sound to her that was irritating, and the actors who played William Frawley and Buster Keaton looked identical. Red Skelton looked like Danny Bonaduce and sounded like Conan O’Brien.
So did this movie disappoint? Yes. Should it have been made? No, but to be honest, any “non fan” or casual viewer probably would have enjoyed it. The problem is that there are SO MANY Lucy fans out there, it more than likely disappointed rather than entertained and satisfied. The ratings seem to reflect that because the telecast lost viewers as each hour passed. Maybe we HAVE finally seen the last of CBS trying to make money off Lucille Ball in prime time. Let’s put to rest once and for all the need for any more documentaries or biopics that rehash the same gossip over and over again. Just let us have the real Lucy in reruns forever, the Lucy we all know and love.
____________Stuart Shostak is a life-long Lucy fan. He has been a member of We Love Lucy since 1977, when he was introduced to the organization by his friend, I Love Lucy-writer, Bob Schiller. Stuart subsequently became Lucille Ball and Gary Morton's film archivist, and is now president/owner of Shokus Video. For the past six years he has been co-producer and video editor for our Loving Lucy Conventions. For many years he authored a regular column, "Viewer's Viewpoint," in our club publications.