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A CurtainUp Review
Two New Shows About Showbiz Legends— Being the Ricardos and Reframing: Marilyn Monroe
By Elyse Sommer
The appetite to find new ways to tell the life stories of showbiz legends. For superstars like Lucille Ball and Marilyn Monroe, we have abundant biopic and documentaries to prove it— most recently, Aaron Sorkin's movie Being the Ricardos and Karen McGann's 4-part documentary Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, inspired by Sarah Churchwell's book The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe.
These latest additions to the iconic pair's stories more than half a decade after their deaths illustrate the blurring between the documentary and biopic film. The aim of both is to get audiences hooked on spending time with these women even though their stores have already been widely chronicled.
Traditionally, documentaries are authentic histories, the factual content suported by filmed footage and the periodic comments of relatives, friends and colleagues who knew them. The biopic genre, while also informative, focuses on entertainment — in the interest of which directors tend to take liberties with what they choose to include and how to present it.
Neither the Lucy and Desi movie or the Marilyn Monroe 4-part documentary rate unqualified raves for me, However, I think Aaron Sorkin's streamlined structure, use of documentary techniques and casting choices do make for a highly entertaining two hours well worth seeing. But the Monroe mini-series unfortunately undermines its validity as a documentary given its strictly interprative narrative.
Sorkin zeroes in on three traumatic events in Ball's life: a Walter Winhell column revealing that the House Un-American Activitiew Committee is investigating Lucy's communist voter registrstion. . .another headline story about Desi's affair which further imperils their already troubled marriage. . . and Lucy announing her pregnancy.
None of this is made up. But in the interest of pace and intensity, Sorkin has made it all happen in one week. This restructured timeline makes for a super-charged week.
The setting is the studio where the cast is doing table readings of the upcoming I Love Lucy show. Mr. Sorkin smartly crossed the border between biopic and documentary by interspersing the interchanges during that rehearsal with periodic documentary style talking head interviews as well as footage that includes scenes from the hit sitcom.
With only the footage featuring the actual Lucy and Desi, the characters in the movie's central setup are played by actors. In addition to Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem as Lucy and Desi and J. K. Simmons and Nina Arianda as their I Love Lucy co-stars, the cast of the central situation includes production executives and staffers to enliven the action. Simmons and Arianda are especially good.
While some of the liberties taken with this biopic-documentary mashup are a bit awkward, for the most part it not only frees the movie from its confined structure to give us a picture of the Lucy-Desi story within the context of the era durmg which it evolved — the sexism in the work place as well as private lives, and the relentless red-baiting of politicians like Joe McCarthy and media pundits like Walter Winchell who would have been right at home on Fox News.
Nicole Kidman doesn't resemble Ball; nor is she famous for being a terrific comic actor as Ball was. Consequently it takes a bit to buy into her being cast in this role. The effort to make her look more like Ball with a digital face lift doesn't help. On the contrary, it just has her look neither like Ball or herself.
That said, Kidman does manage to capture the Lucy of the sitcom and the tough Lucy with back-and-forth shifts in her persona and voice. Javier Bardem is another unlikely choice to play Desi Armez. He had to learn to sing and play that conga drum to play the role. He too is not helped by the physical enhancements but does do a credible Desi.
Though Being the Ricardos isy playing in movie theaters, it's also available to stream at Amazon Prime which has become something of a go-to place for all things Lucille Ball — that includes an excellent and enjoyable documentary , Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie by daughter Lucie Arnaz, who has supported the new movie. In fact, she's one of the producers.
For more about how the decisions about the way the movie's format was developed, you might want to check out the Tirmer Classic Moviess The Plot Thickens podcast Season 3 bonus episode with Aaron Sorkin.
Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether Being the Ricardos will be a must-see for people who were borne too late to see Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as showbiz pioneers but as simply two very rich and successful Hollywood comedians with marital and media problems. Still, Sorkin's behind the scenes take is very much of the moment.
Unlike Being the Ricardos, this sticks to the doumentary format. No actors to play Marilyn or husbands Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller. It's all archival footage with Jessica Chastain as narrator and talking heads who knew her that include actresses, film critics and biographers. pinionated than based storytelling comes off as an attempt to make that title feel like the absolute truth rather than their interpretation of the factual content on screen. Consequently, It struck me as a well-intentioned variation of the unsupported by facts postings flooding the internet.
I hasten to add that Marilyn Monroe certainly deserves to be be remembered for more than her beauty and sex appeal. Her defiance of the Hollywood contrat system was indeed brave and quite enterprising. That system fostered the use of the barbituates that caused her too early death.
And so, bravo to these women for championing Monroe's strengths. Their reframing is an honorable failure.
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Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
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