Imagine the pressure of making a documentary about one of your heroes. You would stress over the countless hours of research to back up your adoration or worry that you would let that idol down. We have loved Lucille Ball for nearly a century, and her comedy endures. Amy Poehler’s documentary, Lucy and Desi, lovingly looks back at the rise of Ball and Desi Arnaz, but she looks beyond their careers in Hollywood. By positioning her doc as a love story, Poehler makes us fall in love with Lucy and Desi all over again.
We are defensive about actors we admire. Lucy and Desi have been immortalized because of how they changed the realm of comedy. They are still all over social media, and I don’t even want to think about the amount of merchandise and collectibles emblazoned with iconic scenes from I Love Lucy (I know I have some, and I’m not ashamed to admit it). We are defensive of Ball and Arnaz as both characters and titans of television. No wonder so many people were defensive of Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos (Nicole Kidman proving a lot of audiences wrong, thank you very much).
By speaking to Ball and Arnaz’s daughter, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, and other comedy icons like Carol Burnett and Bette Midler, Lucy and Desi reinforces how underrated Ball was in her prime. Someone later in the film refers to Ball as ‘The Queen of the B’s’ because she landed so many roles in lower budget films during her time at RKO (her big break came in the 1928 when she replaced another actress in Roman Scandals). Historian Laura LaPlaca even says, “I don’t like when people say her comedy was effortless” when referring to how hard Ball had to work to put herself front and center in her own career.
Poehler positions the early careers of Ball and Arnaz as two meteors destined to collide. It jauntily bounces back to the beginnings of each respective career. Arnaz was a protégé of Xavier Cugat in Havana, and Ball described her time at RKO as ‘the greatest apprenticeship.’ Poehler doesn’t focus too much on making this strictly an entertainment, ‘behind-the-scenes’ look. The couple was so deep in the makings of television, so that is inevitable. Lucy and Desi, however, is a love story with the birth of television behind it. Poehler doesn’t want to focus solely on Old Hollywood. She has made a captivating, infectious love story.
What burns through the screen throughout Lucy and Desi is how much this couple wants to spend time together as they create their careers. Married couples almost never share the same amount of success let alone on the same set while collaborating on one of the greatest shows of all time. Whether he knew it at the time or not, Arnaz was pioneering how we view television as we learned how great television can be. Their marriage did not last, but their love never waned. Their respect for each other as artists remained strong until Arnaz’s passing.
Lucy and Desi acknowledges the greatness of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as performers, but rounds out our impressions and memories of them as people. Everything they did for one another was because of love, and Poehler salutes the love that fueled their comedy. Poehler loves comedy so much, and she has played characters whose decency and eagerness have led to great success. I can almost hear Ball giving Poehler the confidence and credit she deserves so much.
Lucy and Desi is available on Amazon.