In ‘Lucy and Desi,’ Amy Poehler strives to humanize TV icons
For Amy Poehler and millions of millions of Americans, “I Love Lucy” wasn’t just something that was on television. It was a show that “came with your TV and was on your whole life,” she said.
But it’s also one that, in the 65 years since it ended, loomed so large as a defining pillar of sitcom comedy that it and the vibrant couple behind the show have been flattened under the weight of words like “icon” and “trailblazer." It’s why Poehler was especially excited to dive into the world of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz for the new documentary “Lucy and Desi” (streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Friday) and bring them back to earth.
“One of my goals was to really make it feel like we were seeing them again as human people,” Poehler said. “As nuanced and complex thinkers as we think we are, sometimes our brains need to be reminded that the little people that were on a black-and-white show on our TV were actual flesh and blood people who had wants and needs like everyone else.”
The doc explores their unlikely ascent to Hollywood moguldom as well as their fascinating relationship on screen and off. She was a girl from Jamestown, New York, who saw modeling and acting as a way out and he was a child of wealth and privilege whose life was upended during the Cuban revolution in 1933, when he and his family fled to America and had to start from scratch.
“I think one of the coolest things about this story is you have two genuine outsiders: You have a Cuban-American immigrant, a refugee, if you will, who arrived to the country with no money and a poor grasp of the language. And then you have a woman in her 40s who’s been working in the business for a long time and is very skilled, but certainly hasn’t reached the amount of power that she’d like,” Poehler said. “And it’s these two people, very confident in their skills but not gatekeepers in any way, who take over the business.”
In one particularly powerful sequence, Ball is shown reporting the $20 million earnings of their studio, Desilu, which had just greenlit “Star Trek” and “Mission: Impossible.”
“Lucy had a reluctance to be considered the first woman anything, but she was the first woman to run a giant studio,” Poehler said. “She was directing and writing and producing and but she was a (product) of the time and wouldn’t have assumed to take credit for any of those things.”
Poehler tried to be especially thoughtful about selecting her talking heads, which include Norman Lear, Bette Midler and Carol Burnett. She didn’t want to simply collect famous people, she wanted voices who weren’t Arnaz and Ball to have had a more direct connection to them, including their children, Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr., and the children of those who worked on the show, or a perspective that would deepen the narrative. Cuban playwright Eduardo Machado puts into perspective the import of seeing a man like Desi Arnaz on television and in charge.
A treasure trove of previously unreleased personal recordings and interviews found at their daughter's Palm Springs home proved vital for letting Ball and Arnaz tell their own stories. Lucie Arnaz was more than happy to hand them over to Poehler, who she thought the perfect person to be the shepherd of her parents’ story.
“One of the things that was really important to me is that we heard from Lucy and Desi as much as we could,” Poehler said. “It’s very interesting to hear people talk about their lives, even if they’re an unreliable narrator.”
The doc should satisfy superfans, but Poehler also made it for the merely curious too.
“There could be so many different approaches to their story because they represented so many things, whether they wanted to or not, they represented a changing business, they represented a changing America,” Poehler said. “What I found so fascinating is the way both respected and loved each other’s process up until the very end. They really brought out the best in each other.”
It’s one of two high profile Hollywood projects about the power couple. The other is Aaron Sorkin’s fictionalized “ Being the Ricardos,” which is also available to watch on Prime Video and got Oscar nominations for Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem.
Poehler is just happy that her film gets to be experienced at home, just like a television show.
“I’m thrilled that this is going to be on Amazon. I really want people to watch this on their couches like they watch TV,” Poehler said. “There’s just something very, very intimate about television. And the idea that people get to watch this film in that way is very exciting to me.”
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr