LUCY AND DESI (2022), a new Amazon Prime original documentary directed by Amy Poehler, is filled with poignant moments as it chronicles the love story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, showing how they struggled to balance the demands of show business with their family life, a struggle that ultimately led to their divorce, but one that never stopped them from loving each other.
LUCY AND DESI makes for a nice companion piece to BEING THE RICARDOS (2021), Aaron Sorkin’s movie chronicling one of the most stressful weeks in the lives of the famous TV couple, starring Nicole Kidman as Lucy and Javier Bardem as Desi. I actually enjoyed LUCY AND DESI more than I did BEING THE RICARDOS, but this might be an unfair comparison, because LUCY AND DESI features the real Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in tons of archive footage both in character and behind the scenes, and that’s something that is simply hard to beat. As such, LUCY AND DESI is a heck of a documentary.
The film basically is the love story between Lucy and Desi. We see how they first meet, how well they worked together on I LOVE LUCY (1951-1957), how things eventually fell apart, and how they continued to be in each other’s lives long after their marriage had ended. In fact, the point is made that after they divorced, they actually got along better.
There are many fascinating tidbits and revelations made in this film, from the pushback they received from producers who did not want to cast Desi in I LOVE LUCY because they didn’t want a Cuban lead, but a generic white American, to the genesis for the plot line of the series which featured Desi’s Ricky Ricardo who was in show business but really wanted out, and his wife Lucy, who was not in show business, but really wanted in.
In real life, it was Lucy who loved to perform, and Desi who had a knack for the business side of things. It was Desi who built DesiLu Productions and turned it into one of television’s largest production companies. But it was also incredibly grueling work and wore him down to the point where he eventually because of failing health and drinking, just had to quit. Lucy would buy out the company from him, but since her interests were never in business, she eventually sold the company to Paramount.
Lucy and Desi’s daughter Lucie Arnaz, who is interviewed throughout the documentary, makes the poignant point that what Lucy and Desi really wanted in their lives was the perfect combination of show business and family life. They gave the world I LOVE LUCY, and so as Lucie Arnaz explains, the world got this perfect combination in the form of an everlasting TV show, but Lucy and Desi never got to enjoy it in real life, as their marriage ended in divorce. Whereas they succeeded creatively, giving the world the gift of I LOVE LUCY, they failed personally. They couldn’t live out what they had created in the fictional world of television.
Other notable points include Desi’s early life in Cuba, and how in the U.S., after fleeing the Cuban revolution and arriving here penniless as a refuge, he was always looking to recapture what he lost in his home country, that feeling of home, but sadly was never able to. And how Lucy and Ethel, as played by Vivian Vance, were shown as active women who were constantly plotting together and taking the lead in the storylines over their husbands, which was something unheard of in 1950s TV shows. Furthermore, Lucy’s second show, THE LUCY SHOW (1962-1968), broke new ground by having Lucy and Vivian Vance play two single moms raising children on their own.
We also see how Lucy helped many performers get their starts, including Carol Burnett, who appears in interviews and speaks of how generous Lucy was to her, and how she still thinks of Lucy nearly every day.
LUCY AND DESI is also filled with tons of archival footage of both Lucy and Desi, including famous clips from I LOVE LUCY. And one of the most memorable moments comes right near the end, after the film takes us through Desi’s final days, as he is sick with lung cancer, and we hear as told by Lucie Arnaz, how Lucy and Desi spoke on the phone, and how they told each other they loved each other, and how Lucy was the last person other than Lucie Arnaz who was with Desi when he died, to speak to him. Desi Arnaz died in 1986 from lung cancer. He was only 69 years old.
But the moment comes from footage from the Kennedy Center Awards in 1986, where Robert Stack reads a posthumous statement from Desi Arnaz in which he gives all the credit for the success of I LOVE LUCY to Lucy, and says I LOVE LUCY was never just a title. The audience then turns and gives an emotional Lucille Ball a standing ovation.
Lucy would pass three years later in 1989 at the age of 77.
LUCY AND DESI was written by Mark Monroe who provides a solid framework for the telling of the story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
Amy Poehler, known of course for her comic performances on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and on PARKS AND RECREATION (2009-2015), also directed and starred in one of my favorite movies from last year, MOXIE (2021). Poehler succeeds once again behind the camera and does exceptional work here directing LUCY AND DESI.
And it’s an important story to tell because I LOVE LUCY is not only one of the all-time best, if not the best television comedy series ever, but also one of the biggest influencers. It was the first show to use a live studio audience, the first to use film, and utilized a three-camera system developed by Desi Arnaz. It was also successful because Desi hired the best people and was comfortable delegating work out to these people, like acclaimed cinematographer Karl Freund. It featured a Latin male in the lead, two strong female characters, allowed Lucy to be pregnant in a storyline which was unheard of in the 1950s, and featured the amazing physical comedic talents of Lucille Ball, who unlike most beautiful actresses, was unafraid to make herself look ugly or foolish to get a laugh.
I still remember when Lucille Ball passed away in 1989, it was a big deal, both in my family and in the national media. Lucille Ball is easily one of the biggest stars of her generation, and she did it mostly in the smaller medium of television rather than film, which is also a testament to her talent, and she has lived on, cementing her place with the other entertainment greats in film and television history. And one of the reasons she achieved this success, was the tireless efforts of her husband Desi Arnaz, whose business sense provided I LOVE LUCY with the best people to create the show, giving Lucy her vehicle to finally display her talents to the world.
The story of Lucy and Desi is one that needs to be told, of how two people very much in love created a cultural and entertainment phenomenon with the TV show I LOVE LUCY, but sadly, they were unable to survive the pressures of doing so and eventually divorced. They both remarried and stayed married longer to their second spouses than they were with each other, but they never stopped loving each other and were there for each other until the end.
LUCY AND DESI is a tale of dreams, of hard work, of love, and the costs of trying to balance them, and how unlike in television, where happy endings abound, in reality, people are human, and stress often takes its toll, as it did with Lucy and Desi, but people are also resilient, and Lucy and Desi carried on, and they loved each to the last.
Indeed, I LOVE LUCY was never just a title. It’s also an everlasting love letter from Desi to Lucy, one that we are all invited to read.