« She was very complicated, she was very loving and she was very changeable. She was very generous but she was from the Depression and she was very careful with money. She was an enigma. She was a paradox of things. But she made me feel like I was the only person in the room, even in the crowd, and she made me feel genuine.«
Writer and playwright Lee Tannen is on the rise as he recalls his ten-year intense friendship with Lucille Ball, once America’s funniest and most famous woman. His 1950s sitcom, I Love Lucy, drew 60 million viewers and has become part of the country’s cultural DNA.
Thirty-two years after his death, the legend is about to be polished by Being the Ricardos, a biographical drama starring Nicole Kidman as Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz, both her husband. in real life and on screen. It explores the couple’s personal relationship – they divorced after 19 years but are said to have remained soul mates – and a professional crisis in which their careers nearly derailed due to the “red scare” in Hollywood.
This chapter of Ball’s career is so little known that writer and director Aaron Sorkin ignored it when he took over the project.
She was 24 when, in 1936, she joined the Communist Party to please her beloved grandfather (her father died of typhoid fever when she was three). She hardly thought about it, if at all, about politics, but was dragged before the Committee on Un-American Activities of the United States House of Representatives in 1953.
When influential columnist and broadcaster Walter Winchell broke the news and the newspapers followed, Ball looked doomed as other Hollywood stars and screenwriters were blacklisted by the Communist witch hunt. She got ready to boo the studio audience on the upcoming recording of I Love Lucy.
But before getting on the set, Arnaz warmed up the audience by joking: “And now. I want you to meet my favorite woman – my favorite redhead – in fact, she’s the only red thing about her, and even that’s not legit. (The ball had gone from brown to blonde to red.)
Arnaz had saved the day. The crowd applauded. And the corporate powers behind I Love Lucy refused to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs.
Speaking by phone from Stuyvesant, New York, Tannen said, “Lucy was the most non-partisan person I know, but that was a big deal and the only reason her career wasn’t ruined was because that she was loved so much and Desi helped her get through this point. There have been people who have committed suicide because of that. It was a horrible, horrible, horrible time in American history. “
Ball had a previous career in Hollywood, making 75 films in 18 years at almost every major studio. She married Arnaz, a Cuban-born musician and actor who became a naturalized American citizen, in 1940. A decade later they toured vaudeville, formed their own production company, Desilu (which produced Mission : Impossible and Star Trek), and referred to I Love Lucy, which defined the era.
Ball played Lucy Ricardo, a wacky housewife with big dreams, while Arnaz (the first person to call her “Lucy” rather than “Lucille”) played the role of Ricky Ricardo, a conductor. Cuban-American. The show gained a huge national audience that would now be unthinkable in the fragmented era of streaming and continues to have a dedicated global audience.
Tannen reflects: « It is timeless. It is endless. He gets around the parody. It sidesteps politics, it sidesteps racism. He bypasses everything. It’s just damn funny. The writers were in their twenties – they were kids – and they could write and it was a new medium and we laugh about it today. Funny is funny. Lucy always said, you don’t cut funny, and she’s right. It’s just funny.«
Ball and Arnaz had two children, Lucie and Desi Jr, but couldn’t keep the family together. They divorced in 1960 after she could no longer endure her alcoholism and extramarital affairs. Tannen continues: « For me, the more successful they became, the more unsuccessful they became, that is, professionally and personally.
“She told me that she would never have left him if they hadn’t been so famous and so well known to the public. The looks she received from all the people in Hollywood and the women who were his friends he fucked: she couldn’t take it anymore. It was really running women and drinking and he couldn’t cope with success.«
Ball took over as head of Desilu Productions, becoming the first woman to run a major studio. She married stand-up comedian Gary Morton in 1961 and remained his wife until her death of an aneurysm in 1989. But Tannen, a distant relative of Morton, is convinced that Arnaz was her true love. life.
“Oh, not even close,” he said. « I say in my book that the day Desi died was the day she started dying. It was such a love story that she undoubtedly loved him until the day she died. And I think he loved her.
Tannen first met Ball briefly when he was very young, and then again in 1980 when they hit it off and became inseparable. “It was that kind of kismet relationship. She became like a surrogate mother and I became like a surrogate son because you don’t have all of this baggage – although we have baggage.
“I was probably more with her than with her kids in those 1980s to 1989. It’s been a very bittersweet last decade, a few triumphs, a lot of disappointments and heartache. She died too young for me and I still miss her every day.
Tannen turned his decade with Ball in Memory, I Loved Lucy, which he adapted into a play of the same name and which he hopes could still become a movie. He gave in to his love of backgammon, traveled with it, and was in the audience when she received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1986 – five days after Arnaz died.
“It was my first decade of coming out as a gay man and it was entering the last decade of her life, not that she knew it then,” he says fondly. “I wasn’t sure about my sexuality and she wasn’t sure about a lot of things and we kind of saved each other.
“I told her I was gay before I told my parents and I was so nervous to tell her and she was like, ‘What is this? Why the hell didn’t you tell me in the first place that you were gay? ‘ She has been around homosexuals all her life. So I loved how genuine she was to me and how genuine I was to her. This word keeps coming back. “
In a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Sorkin was forced to defend his cast of Kidman and Bardem and raised eyebrows among Ball enthusiasts by claiming:. Being the Ricardos is likely to raise the question: Has I Love Lucy stood the test of time?
Kathleen Brady, who interviewed Ball when she was 74 and wrote a biography, Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball, says, “The series is still part of American culture. I meet people who are sophisticated and they are doctors and they are lawyers and when they hear that I have met Lucille Ball, they are so excited. I think the fact that the show gives us so much joy means that yes it is still relevant today.. «
Brady, whose latest book is Francis and Clare: The Struggles of the Saints of Assisi, adds: what God knows she may have done.
“Before she got on the New York subway and got a cup of love stuck on her head, she would vacuum the house, make sure little Ricky was taken care of – she was a really good girl.” housewife. I guess if you wanted to be really serious you could see Lucy Ricardo as a tragic figure, but nobody wants to be serious when it comes to I Love Lucy because he laughs too loudly.
A new generation of Ball fans includes Carrie Cooke Ketterman, a 35-year-old singer and songwriter who lives in Corydon, Indiana, who started watching I Love Lucy at her grandmother’s house when she was five or six.
“I was curious one day and I was going through his VHS tapes and I was like, ‘What the hell is I like Lucy? “And I put on a tape and I was hooked,” she recalls. “I thought she was so funny. I guess it was mostly her expressions that attracted me and the crazy situations she let herself be drawn into. I became a lifelong fan after that.
Ketterman, a natural redhead, and her husband Jeff play Ball and Arnaz in a tribute show, touring festivals across the country. She adds: “Their relationship was very unique. You can see in the photos and some of the home videos and what you’ve read about them, that they really liked each other.
“Of course, it wasn’t perfect at all. They were both so passionate and creative that it was only natural for them to take their heads. They were so stressed out that Lucy would continue, especially once they saw what they had.
“But I think this love was real. It was always there, though it wasn’t always the best at times. They were meant to be together, and as much as you wanted that happy Hollywood ending – they stuck together forever and ever, the end – real life doesn’t work that way sometimes.