Being the Ricardos (2021) is emblematic of today’s awards season. Here’s why that needs to change
“Lucy and Ricky go to an Italian vineyard and they crush the grapes.” When Madelyn Pugh (played by Alia Shawkat), writer for i love lucyexplains this premise to Lucille Ball (played by Nicole Kidman), the camera slowly zooms in on Ball, lost in thought about how to create her show, i love lucy. As the writers bicker over how to set up the slapstick sequence, Ball imagines himself stomping on the grapes and rolling through them, a black-and-white recreation of one of the original series’ most famous scenes. . Kidman offers a rubbery imitation of Ball’s giant facial expressions and exaggerated movements.
But while the film’s studio audience laughs, it’s not funny at all.
Be the Ricardos (2021), writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s new film about the production of Ball’s hit 1960s TV show, aims to take viewers behind the scenes of what it was like to be Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (played by Javier Bardem). Kidman and Bardem have undeniable star presence, as they command physicality (especially Bardem) that makes them entertaining to watch.
That said, neither Bardem nor Kidman are comedy actors, and their renditions of the scenes feel by heart and by the numbers, with some of the performance quirks making the original show hysterical. It may fit Sorkin’s vision for the film, as he’s said in interviews that he doesn’t think i love lucy, a show with a reputation for being funny, is actually humorous from a modern point of view. Sure, it would be possible to successfully craft a Lucille Ball movie where the character was completely serious, but Sorkin’s film and Kidman’s performance seem rudderless.
Be the Ricardos is so quick, so thematically fuzzy, and so indifferent to Lucy’s humor that it gives her no backstory or dimensional interiority to play for Kidman. As a result, his performance is mimicry without touching on a deeper truth therein.
The flatness of Kidman’s performance in Be the Ricardos and Sorkin’s disinterest in developing his character is largely unrecognized by critics and members of awards groups. In fact, quite the opposite: Kidman was nominated for several major awards and won the Golden Globe for Best Actress (Drama) for the film, making her an Oscar favorite. Kidman’s frequent nominations are a sign of a disheartening trend among awards bodies that is beginning to reward impersonations rather than performances.
Over the past decade, Oscar voters have continued to nominate actors who play celebrities, often in biopics: Over the past five years, Gary Oldman, Rami Malek and Renee Zellweger have won performances by rote and figures of Winston Churchill, Freddie Mercury and Judy Garland, respectively. While some biographical performances can be compelling if they find emotional truth or passion in character, many of them qualify as “Oscar bait”: intended to evoke another person’s memory rather than create their own dynamic character.
Some of this awards season’s biopics are effective or have great performances, usually created by maxing out one element of the character. Andrew Garfield brings fiery intensity to his portrayal of Jonathan Larson in tick… tick… BOOM! (2021), while Lady Gaga chews up the landscape to a pleasant degree in Gucci House (2021). Jessica Chastain’s performance as televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in Tammy Faye’s eyes (2021) is so oversized that he quickly derails humanity and begins to look like an alien (that’s a compliment, because he’s never short of appeal).
Nonetheless, biopics and the performances they feature may symbolize the opposite of quality for some critics and moviegoers; so many of the high-profile ones are mediocre drabs, more concerned with simply mimicking how a person really was than giving an individually passionate or outstanding performance. Critic Bilge Ebiri compares the biopic to the “comic book movie of awards season”, both because of their relentless ubiquity and their predictable structures.
The biopic carries an indifferent quality that, in its most frequent form, focuses so much on successive events rather than thematic feeling that it feels like a bad history textbook. There are certainly good performances in Be the Ricardos– the film’s subplot about the perspectives of women in the television industry is thought-provoking, led by Nina Arianda and Alia Shawkat. But the film cuts through a mostly made-up narrative, condensing historical and ahistorical events into a single week and turgidly back and forth to complete the runtime. The filmmakers could have chosen one aspect of Lucy’s personality or life story and honed the performance around it. Instead, Sorkin follows the rule of biopics by trying to cover everything, leaving little room for Lucy as a character to grow as a person does.
The major awards bodies make plenty of good choices, but the toxic quality of “Oscar buzz” compels voters to choose biopics that get talked about simply because they are biopics when they premiere. None of Parasite (2019) artists were even nominated for Oscars, but predictable and boring biopics like Harriet (2019), The two popes (2019), and Bomb (2019) were able to make their way among the good films in 2020.
movies like King Richard (2021), a boring biopic about Richard Williams, played by Will Smith, and Belfast (2021), an admittedly entertaining landmark film that has Big Biopic Energy, in this year’s awards season cycle has been talked about for months and considered locks for major categories, even without box office success. nor rave reviews. It is true that most critics appreciate King Richard and Belfast and that award nominees don’t need to do well at the box office, but the constant nomination of these “safe” movies and performances generates a similarity that can make catching up with nominees like a chore.
Perhaps for a year, the Academy should be banned from selecting biopics and films “based on a true story”; actors would then be incentivized to make performance choices that are stranger, more personal, daring, and above all, more entertaining. Instead of a restrained, muted Lucy and Desi, there should be more love for performances that push boundaries, act boldly, and inhabit a personality, real or fictional, that feels truly human.