Red hair, few sparks in ‘Lucy’ biopic
She mugs. She laughs. She suffers. She fails. She suffers. She dyes her hair red. She charms Desi. She succeeds. She has babies. She laughs. She suffers. She charms America and fills a Philco as a prat-falling, nose-twitching, eye-crossing, cream-pie-in-the-face waiting to happen.
But Sunday’s “Lucy” -- straddling three hours on CBS -- is not worthy of much love as one more bonbon on a speeding conveyor belt of routine TV biographies.
It glides pretty much along the surface while accompanying Lucille Ball to age 50 and her breakup with Desi Arnaz after 20 years of tumultuous marriage and partnership on “I Love Lucy.” At its peak, their series reached more than two-thirds of U.S. homes with TV sets. Compare that with today’s splintered TV universe, where an audience of 12 million or 13 million earns you Mt. Rushmore.
The term “biopic,” projecting shallowness, has a more pejorative meaning when applied to television. As if big-screen biographies were somehow superior because they’re on a bigger screen, Scorsese made “Raging Bull,” Salma Hayek had the Brow in “Frida,” and if “Lucy” were a real movie you’d be paying nine bucks minimum to see Catherine Zeta-Jones as a fiery redhead and Madonna as Ethel Mertz.
The bias comes from ignorance, of course. Cinema and TV share equally in clunkers because screen size doesn’t determine superficiality.
On the other hand, when TV focuses on life and show biz intersecting, shallow things usually happen. Go figure. Coming to mind are recent TV movies about Shirley Temple, Jackie Gleason and Judy Garland (pushing a pair of worthy Garlands, in Tammy Blanchard and Judy Davis, across a flat landscape). This may be prejudging unfairly because I haven’t seen it, but arriving May 12 is NBC’s unscreened “Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Three’s Company.” Yes, the story that had to be told, billed as an “unflinching glimpse” at the “unfunny side” of ABC’s hit sitcom of the ‘70s. Which presumes it had a funny side.
Now comes “Lucy,” filmed in, of all places, New Zealand, with Glenn Jordan directing from a teleplay written by Katie Ford and T.S. Cook. And, yes, this time biopic fits, with Rachel York a game but largely unsatisfying Ball and Danny Pino about the same while boozing and babaluing the ladies as her Cuban-bandleader husband and partner who speaks with a thick Latin accent. He’s got his good points but makes life for her quite a “sperience.”
We watch them meet on a movie set in 1940 and swiftly fall in love. More than a decade and many ups and downs later, after Ball makes a slew of movies as a perpetual starlet, TV makes them America’s most famous and beloved couple.
When TV was just getting its toddler legs, Ball and Arnaz were the Ricardos of “I Love Lucy,” forged from the sexual politics of their time: Wife stays at home, husband works and heads the family. But it didn’t play quite that smoothly in this New York apartment, with Lucy always trying to horn in on her nightclubbing husband’s act, and Ricky inevitably losing control (“Lucy, would you mind tellin’ me what’s going on?”). Lucy’s neighbor, Ethel (played Sunday by Rebecca Hobbs), was her collaborator in mischief, and Ricky had his own loyal sideman in Ethel’s growly husband, Fred (played in “Lucy” by Russell Newman).
Lucy Ricardo was childish and often threw tantrums (“Wahhhhhh”) when she was foiled. Yet despite her unfulfillment, and Ricky’s headaches coping with her behavior, they were as blissful on screen as they were privately frustrated and unhappy in real life before they ultimately divorced. In fact, Ball saw their series as a way to keep their marriage together and insisted that Arnaz be her TV husband in response to TV executives who disqualified him for being too “ethnic,” which was another example of TV in that era misreading public opinion.
From the TV living room to America’s, “I Love Lucy” was a force in prime time from 1951 until weekly production ended in 1957, followed by a string of specials and, later, syndication globally in so many languages that even long after her TV career had ebbed, Ball was said to be the most famous female on the planet. Meantime, she and Arnaz had created a prototype for many future sitcoms by working live in front of three cameras and a studio audience, while also creating powerhouse Desilu Productions.
You didn’t have to love Lucy -- some of us were less wowed than others by her broad style -- to appreciate her gifts as a clown and her contributions to television. Ball not only had looks, but her physical comedy was also memorable, graceful, executed with precision and at times inspired.
Her conga line of classic bits included her putty nose, which she was wearing as a disguise, catching fire when guest William Holden lighted her cigarette, forcing her to dunk her nose into the nearest coffee cup.
Reenacted by York is Lucy’s famous grape-stomping sequence, plus Lucy getting tanked on the alcohol-based product she’s pitching on TV as the “Vitameatavegamin Girl” and, most famous of all, Lucy and Ethel getting jobs at a candy factory where they are ultimately assigned to wrap chocolates after removing them from a conveyor belt.
As the belt moves faster and faster in this episode, directed by William Asher and written by Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll Jr., Lucy and Ethel can’t keep pace and they panic, stuffing the excess candy into their mouths, their pockets, their blouses, anything.
Although York gives it her best, it’s an uphill struggle. Seeing these scenes remade in “Lucy” affirms the challenge facing biographies that rely largely on the familiar. It’s possible to redo the look but not the spark of comic genius that made Ball unique, one of the crucial elements missing from this mostly flat account of her life.
Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at howard.rosenberg@latimes.