Swiftly, right here’s Lucy.
The small-screen icon Lucille Ball has reappeared on the huge display in two present releases: first in fictionalized kind as the boisterous harridan Lucille Dolittle (Christine Ebersole) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza,” then, extra considerably, as her full-blown, no-nonsense, businesslike self, as portrayed by Nicole Kidman in the Aaron Sorkin biopic “Being the Ricardos.”
When the Australian actress was introduced for the function, the information prompted an web backlash among fans and insiders. As the co-author of a e-book on Desilu Productions and a longtime “Lucy” aficionado, I shared their concern.
It was a pleasing shock, then, to see how deftly Kidman conveyed the nuances of the star offscreen — difficult, direct, competent, skilled — and usually humorless. What was missing was her real, spontaneous tenderness towards her husband, Desi Arnaz (performed by Javier Bardem), so steadily captured in the “I Love Lucy” exhibits. In the movie, her affection was alternately expressed as both sexual ardour or jealous rage. (In contrast, “Licorice Pizza” affords a one-dimensional sketch of an enormous, obnoxious star.)
The truth is, there was a seldom-seen smooth facet to Lucille — I exploit her full identify right here to tell apart the actress from the TV character — which I found the first time I met her.
Lucille has lengthy been touted as a hard-nosed, shrewd businesswoman, the first to run a TV studio. However she truly hated that job and the accompanying label. She ran Desilu Studios as a result of Arnaz left the firm after their divorce. She inherited the duty and may hardly wait to get out from underneath that yoke.
Cautious and self-protective, Lucille was at all times suspicious of strangers and their motives, a trait that intensified after her fame exploded. Her son-in-law, the actor Laurence Luckinbill, as soon as aptly described her response to new individuals thusly: “Halt! Who goes there?” As he put it, “Lucille was a sentry in her personal life.”
Lucille Ball has been a determine of significance to me since I used to be 13, once I started watching reruns of the traditional Fifties “I Love Lucy” exhibits, then practically twenty years outdated, and found her terribly pure line supply, beautiful timing, reward for deft bodily comedy and astonishing means to speak her ideas by means of facial expressions. However on modern speak exhibits, she appeared brittle and harsh, a totally completely different particular person than she gave the impression to be in that collection. It grew to become my mission to determine why.
Quickly I used to be in libraries on a pre-Google quest, compelled to trace down biographies and articles from which I may glean extra about her. (I used to be unknowingly researching a e-book I might sooner or later write with Coyne Steven Sanders, “Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.”) However after I graduated from faculty, I moved from Florida to Manhattan to pursue a profession in journalism and determined to place the Lucy obsession behind me.
But inside 9 months, I discovered myself seated proper beside her, and that’s once I got here to see firsthand Lucille’s evasive softer facet.
I used to be a visitor at a birthday celebration for a gentleman named Kieth Dodge, whom I had befriended by happenstance and later got here to search out was assistant to Lucille’s daughter, Lucie Arnaz, who was starring on Broadway in “They’re Taking part in Our Track.” All of us dined collectively one night, and the dialog obtained round to Lucie’s appearances on her mom’s later series. I had seen each episode (and let her understand it). Shortly thereafter, I obtained an invite to a birthday brunch Lucie was throwing for Kieth at Tavern on the Inexperienced that occurred to be on Mom’s Day.
Upon arrival, I used to be proven to a desk set for 11. Empty spots awaited the arrival of the visitor of honor and the hostess. I selected a seat subsequent to an empty chair, with my again to the entrance to the eating room. The place was packed, abuzz with Mom’s Day pleasure.
Instantly there was a hush, adopted by the sound of silverware dropping to plates, then a wave of murmurs: “Lucille Ball, Lucille Ball, Lucille Ball.” A purple, white and blue pack of Philip Morris Commander cigarettes was abruptly plopped down on the place setting to my left, and there she stood. Lucille lived in Beverly Hills. Under no circumstances may I fathom she could be on the visitor checklist.
After introductions, I observed that when Lucille spoke, she made normal pronouncements for the advantage of all the friends. As I had seen in her chat-show appearances, she was severe and brusque, however she tried to please as a result of all people anticipated her to be humorous.
A person with a thick Puerto Rican accent at the different finish of the desk mentioned one thing loudly however unintelligibly, and Lucille leaned over to me and quietly requested, “What’s Ricky Ricardo down there saying?”
That appeared like an icebreaker, so I boldly requested if she ever visited her hometown, Jamestown, N.Y., simply to let her know I used to be one in every of the “cognoscenti.” She mentioned she hadn’t been there in years. I then went even additional and requested if she ever spoke to Marion Robust, her childhood pal whose identify was borrowed for a personality on the authentic collection. She mentioned she had not too long ago spoken to Marion on the cellphone.
Lucie Arnaz abruptly interjected: “Mother, he is aware of all the things about you.”
Lucille replied, “Sure, I do know. He simply requested me about Marion Robust.” And added, as if I wasn’t sitting proper there, “What does he care?”
I used to be flattened, sure I had overstepped and afraid that she thought I used to be some psychotic fan. To avoid wasting face, I turned my consideration towards the friends at the different finish of the desk. Shortly, a superbly manicured hand holding a crystal water goblet got here into my vary of view, with Lucille saying, “Take your glass.” Befuddled, I assumed my glass was in her manner and she wished me to put it elsewhere, so I reached out to take the glass from her. She withdrew it then pushed it towards me once more and commanded, “Take your glass.” As soon as once more I attempted to take the glass from her, and she withdrew it.
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It felt like I used to be a part of a “Lucy” sketch — or the butt of a joke.
Lastly, she provided the glass once more, motioning towards the goblet immediately in entrance of me, and ordered, “Take your glass.” Ah! She was making an attempt to suggest an interlocking toast!
“Get with it, Tom,” cracked Lucie.
It was such a considerate gesture and put the awkwardness behind us. I made a decision I preferred her.
After that, we chit-chatted about normal subjects. She grabbed my arm and used me as a prop in a narrative she was telling the different friends. I lastly screwed up the braveness to get considerably private once more, and requested about her longtime co-star Vivian Vance. “She’s dying,” Lucille grimly confided. (Vance died of most cancers three months later.)
After brunch, we retired to a visitor’s loft for dessert and birthday presents. In my penurious state, I didn’t have a lot of a finances for the current — I ended up with a meticulously wrapped $12.95 Lucite tape dispenser. The process was to go the presents round for the friends to admire. Kieth wasn’t impressed with my utilitarian selection and shortly moved it alongside, on to the subsequent reward. However when my unhappy little desk software made it throughout the room to Lucille, she exclaimed loudly, “Wow! That is the biggest tape dispenser I’ve ever seen! I like, love, like it! All of mine are so clunky. The place did you get it?” I didn’t discover her making a fuss over any of the different (clearly dearer) presents.
I preferred her even higher.
The host of the dessert occasion was an expert photographer, and as issues wound down, all of us gathered for a gaggle photograph surrounding the birthday celebrant, who was seated on a hassock close to Lucille and Lucie, the remainder of us unfold round behind them. I used to be on the far finish, and Lucille reached again and grabbed me by my shirt, pulling me immediately behind her. “Is he in the image?” she requested the photographer, figuring out how vital the ensuing photograph could be to me.
It was then that I liked Lucille.
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