Cate Blanchett is reportedly attached to play Lucille Ball in an “authorized” biopic that Aaron Sorkin will write. But what’s the big story hook? There are two threads but neither strike me as hugely interesting. One, Ball went from being a modestly successful actress in the ’30s and ’40s into a phenomenally popular TV legend and producer in the ’50s and early ’60s (and to some extent into the late ’60s and early ’70s). It’s historically noteworthy for a woman to have become a small-screen superstar and super-mogul during the stodgy Eisenhower era, but it doesn’t sound particularly grabby as a narrative. And two, Desi Arnaz, her husband and showbiz producing partner of 20 years, was a drinker who cheated on her, but a marriage poisoned by infidelity is not exactly knockout material in and of itself.
Lucille Ball in her dishy phase, probably taken sometime in the early ’40s. The truth? She smoked and drank a lot (you could hear it in that voice that could cut through iron), and she didn’t age all that well. But she didn’t need to when I Love Lucy exploded. She was beyond huge in the ’50s.
The most interesting aspect of the film, if it happens (and you never know how these things will go), will be Blanchett’s performance. She’ll have to somehow channel that deep whiskey-and-cigarette voice that Lucy developed as she got older. Ball was a gifted comedienne who was known throughout the industry as a kind, compassionate straight arrow who cared about her friends. But I honestly don’t see a movie here if the film is going to focus on the ’50s success years. Becoming super successful and then being cheated on does not a good story make. The world is full of people who drink and cat around…so what?
You know what the interesting story is? Not the successful ’50s but the catch-as-catch-can ’40s. Lucy stands with the slightly younger Desi all through the ’40s (she was born in 1911, he in 1917) and particularly in the late ’40s while they’re pitching the TV series and he’s dealing with ethnic prejudice for being a Cuban bongo player who, certain TV execs believe, won’t be palatable to a white-bread audience. And then when they finally hit it big with I Love Lucy Desi goes nuts with the cheating and emotionally stabs her in the back. Now that‘s a story. She gave to him but he didn’t give back.
Lucy described Arnaz during a 1970s Barbara Walters interview as “a loser…a guy who needed to fail, to tear it all down.”