This review of “Lucy and Desi” was first published on Jan. 22, 2022, following the film’s Sundance premiere.
There were a lot of scenarios in which Amy Poehler’s affectionate documentary “Lucy and Desi” might never have existed. As Lucille Ball herself recounts via wonderful vintage interviews, the future superstar couldn’t even make it as a showgirl in the early years. She was kicked out of drama school and canned from various chorus lines. “I was a dud. A real nothing,” she admits, adding that at one desperate point she changed her name to Dianne Belmont, pretended she was from Montana (instead of New York) and gave herself the nickname “Two Gun.”
By Ball’s own modest account, it wasn’t talent but unrelenting hard work that pulled her up a few rungs, until she’d done enough low-budget studio movies that she was considered “Queen of the Bs.” Her remarkable self-deprecation becomes part of the documentary’s charm, especially given Ball’s prickly reputation. She only went into comedy, she insists, because she was out of other ideas: “See, when you’re not beautiful, and you’re not too bright, you attract attention any way you can.”
Among other things, Poehler gives us the gift of evidence. We can see for ourselves that Ball was both beautiful and brilliant. But what truly changed her life, and entertainment itself, was her chance casting opposite Desi Arnaz in the movie “Too Many Girls.”
“Lucy and Desi” is an engaging history and a lovely tribute, but above all, it’s a heartfelt romance. And theirs was, by both accounts, love at first sight. They were determined to work together in Hollywood, and — despite significant pushback because Arnaz was a Cuban émigré — they finally got a chance with their boundary-breaking sitcom “I Love Lucy.”
The show was an immediate success, of course, and changed the course of television. Despite the perpetually rocky nature of their marriage, the two worked together for nearly two decades as the founders of Desilu Productions, which was eventually solely run by Ball, the first woman to head a television studio. It’s an extraordinary story, if a now-familiar one. Fans are likely to have seen much of it play out most recently in Aaron Sorkin’s “Being the Ricardos,” with Nicole Kidman as Ball and Javier Bardem as Arnaz.
But there’s nothing like the real thing, both on and offscreen. No matter how many times you’ve seen Ball shill Vitameatavegamin, her performance stands as peerless perfection. And understanding the relationships between the creators and cast members can only deepen one’s appreciation of a seminal classic.
Poehler clearly gets the importance of these relationships and casts a broad net in sharing the story. She makes thoughtful use of old footage and interviews with “I Love Lucy” stars and writers, adding layers with compelling contemporary observations from the couple’s friends and family members. Personal memories from Ball’s protégé Carol Burnett and the duo’s daughter Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill go a long way towards humanizing historical icons.
And yes, that’s icons, plural: Poehler takes her title seriously and gives equal time to both actors. In fact, it’s Arnaz who’s treated a bit more kindly. While Arnaz Luckinbill and others refer to Ball’s “difficult” nature and hard edges, Arnaz’s are notably softened. At the time, the troubles in their marriage were a constant source of news, and gossip magazines never lacked for salacious headlines about him cheating, drinking and gambling.
Poehler skirts the sensational almost entirely, painting a personal portrait of a man who always wanted to do the right thing but sometimes became overwhelmed by his work or relationships. We learn a lot about Ball, but ultimately, we come to understand Arnaz a little better. This may be because of who she really was, or because of who, in a world run mostly by men, she had to be.
It’s not quite accurate, as Bette Midler has said, that, “There had never been anyone like her before. You realized that women could do this too. It wasn’t just Charlie Chaplin. It wasn’t just Buster Keaton.” (Here’s hoping Poehler might one day make a movie about Mabel Normand, who mentored Chaplin, or Gertrude Berg, who created the sitcom that set the stage for “I Love Lucy.”)
But Ball’s outsized talents and the pair’s pioneering accomplishments were and remain undeniably awe-inspiring. What makes “Lucy and Desi” so compelling is that we can feel, all the way through, that Poehler enjoys telling their story just as much as we enjoy watching it.
“Lucy and Desi” premieres on Prime Video March 4.