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The ‘layers’ behind Hollywood’s powerful, pioneering Hispanic, Desi Arnaz

In “Being the Ricardos,” Javier Bardem brings out the multifaceted Cuban American actor.
Desi Arnaz and Javier Bardem, who plays Arnaz in "Being the Ricardos."
Desi Arnaz and Javier Bardem, who plays Arnaz in "Being the Ricardos."NBC News / Getty Images

Javier Bardem pursued the role of the trailblazing Latino entertainer Desi Arnaz for years, even before Amazon Studios greenlit its new film “Being the Ricardos,” a dramatic slice-of-life story centered on one of America’s most famous TV couples as they face a series of crises that threaten their personal and professional lives.

In an interview, Bardem said he was interested in exploring the many layers that come with interpreting such a multifaceted performer and businessman, who revolutionized American television while embracing his Cuban roots at a time when the word “Hispanic” hadn’t even emerged.

“There are many colors and layers into what he represented as an entertainer, as a musician, as a producer, as a husband and also the origin of a Latin personality that was coming to Hollywood back in the day,” Bardem said. “He was able to really make room to present himself and his skills and make sure everybody would respect that.”

With their highly successful show “I Love Lucy,” Arnaz and Lucille Ball pioneered changes in the entertainment industry that paved the way for the Golden Age of television. The couple played Ricky and Lucy Ricardo, characters who were essentially exaggerated versions of themselves.

“The similarities were a lot between Desi Arnaz and Ricky Ricardo in some ways, in many ways. But this is the story about the people behind the scenes, behind the show,” Bardem said. “You don’t need to be a Lucille fan or an ‘I Love Lucy’ fan to understand the stories. It’s about two people that love each other very much, but we don’t know if they’re going to be able or capable of being together for several reasons.”

Director and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin condenses a string of pivotal events in the couple’s life into an intense one-week timeline, starting off with a gossip columnist who accuses Ball of being a communist. In 1953, the accusation meant Ball could end up on the Hollywood blacklist and lose work opportunities because of suspicions of communist or subversive ties.

Bardem and Nicole Kidman take on the roles of Arnaz and Ball as they navigate a chaotic week at Desilu Productions as they must deal with "I Love Lucy's" conservative sponsors. They are also getting ready to film a live show while keeping their deteriorating marriage afloat. The film is peppered with flashbacks that give audiences a glimpse of Ball and Arnaz's backstory.Arnaz was born Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III in Santiago, Cuba, on March 2, 1917. His father was the youngest mayor of Santiago before he joined Cuba’s House of Representatives. Arnaz lived comfortably as a child until his family was forced out of Cuba after the 1933 revolution.

Arnaz arrived in Miami at 16 in 1934 and started working odd jobs, such as cleaning bird cages, to make ends meet.

Before he was known as the charismatic Cuban bandleader Ricky Ricardo in “I Love Lucy,” Arnaz was recruited by the Latin orchestra leader Xavier Cugat as a guitar player and singer. He went on to star in many musicals and eventually formed his own band. Arnaz also popularized the conga in the U.S.

Arnaz married Ball in 1940 after they met on a movie set. As the couple sought to resolve the tensions that came with their conflicting work schedules, they struggled to land opportunities that allowed them to work together, mainly because producers and talent agents rejected the idea of showcasing their multiethnic marriage.

The couple pushed back by launching their own television company, Desilu Productions, and creating “I Love Lucy,” which premiered on CBS in 1951.

“I Love Lucy” became the nation’s No. 1 television show by the spring of 1952. About 32 million people were watching the Ricardos every week.

Desilu Productions went on to become the country’s second-largest independent television production.

“Desi had a motor inside of him that constantly pushed forward, pushed not only himself but the show and the whole Desilu company,” Bardem said. 

A scene from "Being the Ricardos."Glen Wilson / Amazon Original

Television audiences seemed delighted by “I Love Lucy’s” bicultural aspect. A Cuban bandleader and his scheme-plotting redheaded wife were seen as an all-American married couple, even though Lucy and Ricky Ricardo often challenged ideas of 1950s conformity.

Sorkin pays tribute to that quality in “Being the Ricardos.”

Throughout the film, it is evident that Arnaz and Ball have a sort of symbiotic relationship in both their personal and professional lives. They stood up for each other when the entertainment industry found ways to underestimate them, either for Arnaz’s ethnicity or for Ball’s gender and age.

When CBS resisted casting Arnaz because he was Latino, Ball used her star power to press the network until she got her way. In the movie, she also presses show executives to give Arnaz an executive producer credit on “I Love Lucy.”

When Ball became pregnant with her second child, Arnaz advocated for the pregnancy to be written into the show, even though it was considered a taboo topic for television at the time. Arnaz fought skeptical executives who wanted Ball to hide her growing belly behind chairs and other props.

Ball’s pregnancy was written into the show after Arnaz wrote a letter to Alfred Lyons, the chairman of the board at Philip Morris, the cigarette company that sponsored “I Love Lucy.” According to Arnaz’s memoir, Lyons responded with a memo to executives saying: “To Whom It May Concern: Don’t f--- around with the Cuban! Signed, A.L.”

Lucy Ricardo gave birth to little Ricky on Jan. 19, 1953, on “I Love Lucy,” just as Ball gave birth to Desiderio Alberto Arnaz IV in real life. More people tuned in to see Lucy’s baby than to watch President Dwight D. Eisenhower's inauguration. Little Ricky’s birth drew 44 million viewers, compared to the 29 million viewers who sat through Eisenhower’s inauguration.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as Lucy Ricardo and Ricky Ricardo in "I Love Lucy" on Jan. 1, 1952. CBS / via Getty Images file

When Ball’s past affiliations with the Communist Party resurfaced, Arnaz spoke to the media on her behalf, convincing the public that she was only trying to please her ailing grandfather in the 1930s by registering under his party affiliation but that she had no plans to get involved meaningfully.

Arnaz, a light-skinned Cuban, also leveraged his experience as an immigrant to boast about the “American dream” and spoke out against communism. His approach most likely saved the show’s reputation in the face of McCarthyism at a time when other shows went under.

As an entertainer and a businessman, Arnaz walked a fine line between resistance and conformity. He knew when to push the boundaries of conformity just enough to keep viewers interested and when to fall in line to avoid being canceled.

For instance, Ricky Ricardo’s most memorable musical number, “Babalú,” refers to a deity from an Afro-Cuban religious tradition known as santería. And yet, white Americans didn’t seem to know or mind that a light-skinned Cuban aristocrat was exposing them to tinges of African culture. A figure similar to Babalú, known as St. Lazarus, exists for Cuban Catholics.

For Bardem, one of the most unforgettable moments on the set of “Being the Ricardos” was reprising Arnaz’s rendition of “Babalú.”

“It’s a trademark of his, of Desi Arnaz as a musician,” Bardem said. "It was challenging to bring that energy, and also it was very specific of what he represented as an entertainer.

“The energy that he was bringing into the stage, it was kind of new for the time, and that moment was beautiful to perform, for sure,” he said.

Desi Arnaz: Hispanic, Latino or both?

The team behind “Being the Ricardos” faced a fair amount of criticism for casting Bardem, who is from Spain, as one of the most defining Latino entertainers of all time.

Critics pointed to Hollywood’s long track record of excluding Latinos at all levels, from talent agency mailrooms to studio corner offices. According to Nielsen’s latest Diversity Intelligence Series report, Latino representation is about 10 percent across streaming services and cable and broadcast networks (including Spanish-language ones).

Sorkin defended Bardem’s casting, telling The Hollywood Reporter last month that “having an actor who was born in Spain playing a character who was born in Cuba was not demeaning,” because Spanish people are considered Hispanic.

The word “Hispanic,” which emerged in the 1960s, accounts for people who can trace their roots to Spain or Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America or the Caribbean. The word “Latino” emerged three decades later to include other Latin American countries where Spanish is not the dominant language, such as Brazil.

Lucie Arnaz, the daughter of Arnaz and Ball, who was also the film’s executive producer, said in an Instagram post that while Bardem did not look like her father physically, “he had everything that dad had.”

“He had his wit, charm, dimples, musicality. He has his strength and tenacity. You can tell from his performance that he just loved him,” Arnaz said.

“And that’s what you needed,” she said in October.

‘Lucy, I’m home’

In the opening scene of “Being the Ricardos,” Sorkin shows Kidman and Bardem through reflections to effectively signal the blurred lines that divided Ball and Arnaz’s love life on screen from their real marriage.

For Sorkin, Ricky Ricardo’s iconic catchphrase, “Lucy, I’m home,” was more meaningful for Ball than just another line in a TV sitcom script. While Ball strived to have a stable home, she often wondered whether the home she yearned for existed only on TV. The internal conflict is one of the cornerstones of the movie.

Tensions between the couple rise as Arnaz’s multiple indiscretions threaten to destroy their marriage at the peak of their fame.

“When we play real people, we want to get as close as we can to reality, but there’s a moment where you have to let that go,” Bardem said. “You have to express what the person is going through.”

The film has already garnered three Golden Globe nominations: Bardem and Kidman for best performance and Sorkin for best screenplay. It has also been nominated in similar categories for the Critics Choice Awards, the Satellite Awards and the AACTA International Awards.

“Being the Ricardos” is out in theaters and streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime.

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