Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story behind the biopic Being the Ricardos.
No list of the greatest American television shows could be complete without I Love Lucy. The famed sitcom starred real-life married couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo and provided a template for countless series that followed in its wake.
I Love Lucy first aired in October 1951 and lasted six seasons. The show featured many of television’s firsts: the first ensemble cast, one of the first holiday specials, the first millionaire TV stars, one of the first shows to film in Los Angeles, the first sitcom to reach #1 in the Nielsen ratings, and more.
The true story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s marriage and collaboration on I Love Lucy is now the subject of Being the Ricardos, a movie that takes place over one tumultuous week in 1952. As the tagline explains, the duo is “threatened by shocking personal accusations, a political smear, and cultural taboos.”
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7) for Amazon Studios, the biopic stars Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as the famous couple. And as usual with the genre, the authenticity of events portrayed on screen has been scrutinized.
While no single article or movie could fully capture the lives of these two TV icons, here is a glimpse into the true stories behind Being the Ricardos:
The Cultural Taboo of I Love Lucy
Born Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III, Desi Arnaz and his family fled to Miami after the Cuban Revolution of 1933. He met Lucille Ball in 1940 while filming an adaptation of the popular musical Too Many Girls. Before eventually eloping that same year, the couple, according to TCM, “dated tumultuously on and off for several months, driving their friends crazy with the passionate ups-and-downs of it all.”
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Ball worked primarily as a model and movie actress. She also resonated with audiences as a radio performer, alongside broadcast icons of the era like Bob Hope. But with little success on the big screen, she opted to “reinvent herself” for television, then a medium still in its infancy. Executives at CBS asked Ball to essentially adapt her radio persona into a sitcom. Her one condition? That her husband be cast alongside her.
The suits at CBS were hesitant, but not because of Arnaz’s talent. He had also found success as a radio performer and even had a couple of hits as a singer. They resisted because they were unsure how audiences would receive an interracial couple. Or, as TCM puts it, “the network scoffed at the onscreen believability of a W.A.S.P.Y. redhead being married to a Latin bandleader who could barely speak discernible English.”
Arnaz faced similar discrimination throughout his career. As Ball told Barbara Walters years later (via NPR):
“I knew what he had suffered, really, and how he did not deserve that. And just because he was Cuban and once a bongo player did not warrant calling him any of those names. And he worked very hard and got a lot of respect for what he did, and they forgot about that.”
A Tumultuous Marriage
To counter the concerns of the CBS executives, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz embarked on a vaudeville-style road tour under the banner of their new company, Desilu Productions. According to TCM, the tour proved both their appeal to the masses, and their ability to work together. They proved the executives wrong and gave birth to a groundbreaking sitcom. But the honeymoon phase of their success did not last long.
As the show grew in popularity, so too did the stresses of their success. At one point, Desilu Productions became the largest independent production company in the United States. Their personal lives and the show increasingly became one. When Ball became pregnant with their second child, Desi Arnaz Jr. in 1952, it became a plotline. Ball became the first woman to appear pregnant on television. The censors mandated that she be described as “expecting.”
The added stress of the show, plus building and maintaining a business and enduring an intense touring schedule of his own, weighed on Arnaz. Rumors and “dalliances with women and alcohol,” as TCM puts it, began to have an effect on their marriage. The couple divorced in 1960.
Ball eventually purchased Arnaz’s shares in the company, and thus became the first woman to own and head her own television production company. The two remained close for the rest of their lives, however. When Arnaz died in 1986, the headline of an AP report from his funeral simply read, “Lucille Ball Weeps at Arnaz Funeral.”
A Political Smear Against Lucille Ball
While it is not yet clear what the true “political smear” story is that Lucy and Desi endure in Being the Ricardos, Entertainment Weekly speculates that phrase from the tagline refers to a famous incident when Ball was accused of being a communist. In 1953, she became one of the celebrities targeted by the US House of Representatives through the House Un-American Activities Committee during the so-called “Red Scare.”
The committee learned that Ball, in 1936, registered as a member of the Communist Party. She simply told the committee that she had registered at the insistence of her grandfather, a self-described socialist. The committee, and the public, accepted her reason. As TCM notes, Ball became “one of the few accused to emerge unscathed.”
After the accusations, Arnaz told an audience before a live taping of their show, “The only thing red about this lady is her hair, and we’re not even sure about that!”
How the Arnaz Family Has Responded
Both of Lucy and Desi’s children, Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr., have executive producer credits on Sorkin’s movie. In an interview with Palm Springs Life, Lucie lightly criticizes the truthfulness of Being the Ricardos. She says:
“There are certain scenes that I wished hadn’t been in the feature film. I couldn’t get my way and have them taken out, but they weren’t accurate. And I thought, ‘That shouldn’t be in there, because that never happened. That’s not true.'”
But in the same interview, Lucie also praises Sorkin’s work:
“He’s taking some theatrical license and sort of cramming a couple of true events that did happen, they just didn’t happen at the same time. But you do learn a lot about what it was like back then. His dialogue is always incredible. And I think he treated my mother and my father really well.
Being the Ricardos hits theaters on December 10, 2021, and will be available to stream on Prime Video from December 21, 2021.