Marlo Thomas Reflects on Working With Lucille Ball in Tribute to Aaron Sorkin’s ‘Being the Ricardos’

Marlo Thomas Being the Ricardos
Thomas: Matthew Murphy

For Variety‘s Writers on Writers, Marlo Thomas pens a tribute to “Being the Ricardos” (screenplay by Aaron Sorkin). 

There is a wonderful scene in “Being the Ricardos” — Aaron Sorkin’s wrenching chronicle of the pioneering TV comedy series “I Love Lucy” — in which Lucy drags two of her co-stars to the studio at 2 a.m., during a thunderstorm, to re-block a comic moment in a dinner scene that hadn’t gone well in rehearsal. It wasn’t even her bit — it was between her two fellow actors — but she knew it wasn’t good enough, funny enough. And so we watch Lucy push them to rehearse it — position them, instruct them — and they comply, even though their expressions reveal that they think she’s gone mad.

But Lucille Ball knew where the funny was. She could envision it. She could hear it. And she knew what to add to it to make it better.

And making it better haunted her.

Sorkin knows the drive it takes to make things better, and he soon shows us just how much better — and how much funnier — Lucy makes the scene when it is finally filmed the next day. I dare you not to laugh at it.

Sorkin didn’t have the chance to talk with Lucy about what drove her that night, but that didn’t keep him from writing exactly what she must have felt.

”I am the biggest asset of CBS, the biggest asset of Phillip Morris and Westinghouse,” Lucy tells her impatient co-stars, “and I get paid a fortune to do exactly what I love doing…and

all I have to do to keep it is kill every week for 36 weeks in a row… Kill. So let’s do it again.”

It’s a breathtaking moment.

Lucille Ball’s work, half a century later, still gets millions of hits on YouTube. And time and again throughout this remarkable yet unsettling movie — even as she is bombarded with Desi’s infidelity and a bombshell political accusation — we see how hard she fights on that soundstage to do what she knew better than anyone around her. And because she loved the work, it was always worth the fight.

Despite her genius behind and in front of the camera, the movie shows how Lucy was dismissed and patronized for her gender. And yet because of her steely perseverance, she opened the door for all the female TV writers, creators and producers who would come after her.

I was one of those women. When I was In my 20’s, I produced and starred in my own series that was shot at Desilu, the studio owned and run by Lucy and Desi Arnaz. And even then, gender bias was thick in the air.

ln fact, years later, my brother told me that whenever someone was looking for me on the set, the joke was,

”She’s having a meeting with Lucy in the men’s room.” But I got the last laugh — because the truth is, there is no room in which i wouldn’t have been happy to take a meeting with Lucy.

Were this a conventional movie review, I would write pages on the deeply felt performances Sorkin draws from his actors — especially the submersion of Nicole Kidman and Javier

Bardem into the soul of Lucy and Desi, as we watch their passionate romance consumed by the bonfire of their creative success.

And about the splendid J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda, who bring both wit and pathos to the roles of William Frawley and Vivian Vance.

When I first heard that Kidman had been cast as Lucy, I thought, “Seriously? She’s not funny.” Oh, yes, she is — funny, adorable and tough. And with Sorkin’s clever use of close-ups we get an intimate peek into the comedy laboratory of Lucy’s mind.

I cried at the end of “Being the Ricardos.” Everything in it reminds me of my growing up in television. The hangar-like stages, the first table-read, blocking day, the fighting over who thinks what’s funny. The blur of real life and storybook life. And the aching love for all of it.

Sorkin went there. He went all over there. Showing us what it takes to make a comedy work and what it takes to try to make a marriage work within it — and all the heartbreak that happens when funny isn’t enough to make you happy.

Marlo Thomas is an actress, activist, producer and author of eight best-selling books. She is the recipient of four Emmys, a Grammy, and the George Foster Peabody Award. In 2014, President Barack Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.