Issue #60: Auteur's Theory 🎭
Being The Ricardos + West Side Story
We’re right in the thick of awards season (the best season of the year) and we’re racing towards the Oscars finish line. We’re three weeks out from nominations and two months from the ceremony, but 2021 was (allegedly!) a very good year for movies. There are lots of great films to get through. And that’s not even counting all the new films coming out of Sundance this week!
To kick things off, we’re tackling films by two auteurs that are all but guaranteed to be in the mix come nomination time. First, Zosha on Aaron Sorkin’s squirrelly but effective(?) Being The Ricardos. Then Cate on Steven Spielberg’s dazzling update to West Side Story. Happy movie yelling!
Zosha on Being The Ricardos
When Nicole Kidman was cast as Lucille Ball — the Lucille Ball — Twitter looked on askance; Kidman’s accent work is always suspect, her performances sometimes too amberized. Lucille was all fluid, balletic pratfalls. How could Kidman hope to measure up? (Face prosthetics and wigs, to start.) But in practice, of course, director Aaron Sorkin has some more tricks up his sleeve: he’s gonna make her serious.
It’s not that this Lucille isn’t funny. She cracks dry jokes with the best of them, dry as cornbread in Kidman’s work as a steeled brassy broad. But she rarely laughs. She’s more interested in making the best damn product she possibly can, alongside her more charismatic but no less firm husband, Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem). Being the Ricardos follows a particularly tumultuous week in their life, as they wait to see how the public will respond to news that Lucy once identified as a communist, break the news to their crew that they’re expecting, and want to show the pregnancy on TV, all while pulling together an episode with a dinner scene that just won’t come together and a cast straining under the pressure.
It’s certainly serious business, and — surprisingly! — Sorkin pulls some of it off. There are definitely parts where the ol’ Sorkin Soapbox comes out, but Being the Ricardos is at its strongest when it’s simply presenting the duo and their players as a character study, and the film largely sticks to that script. Perhaps most cleverly, Sorkin finds a workaround to watching Kidman fall short of recreating the comedic genius of Lucille Ball. In this movie, we see the scene only as Lucy sees it, in black-and-white flashes as script directions are read or plot points bandied about. They’re practically blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, but it’s a development that’s as clever as it is revealing; throughout this impossibly hard week, we come to understand how driven Ball was to always get it right, how much care went into every line and laugh. You don’t get to a place like that without hard work, and Being the Ricardos shows you that it was hard work. (Even if Lucille Ball made it look like the easiest thing in the whole world.)
With that weight off their shoulders, Kidman and Bardem slot into the roles fluidly enough. Bardem is charming, forceful, and dynamic as he ensures everything runs smoothly. Kidman is a perfectionist who’s always right. (Sorkin fans will certainly feel the familiar beats of her behind-the-scenes showdowns, like the one with Vivian Vance about her on-screen attractiveness, from the usual Sorkin beats, though here it’s sapped of walk-and-talk energy.) Their dynamic works best when it’s not doing the heavy lifting for the script — when they get to feel like a professional couple who know each other’s flair and foibles, rather than theatrically volleying from a fight to a fuck. Whether anachronistic or not, even a layman viewer can get a good sense of how this couple stayed together, and why Ball filed for divorce the day after I Love Lucy ended their working relationship. But it’s probably the strongest when they feel like a hard-working business couple, rather than the real-life stars they’re so eagerly trying to emulate.
While it’s no Studio 60, Sorkin can’t resist waxing too poetic on what showbiz means to people. The supporting cast often feels there to prop up the roles of Lucy and Desi, ready for some rapid-fire dialogue but never really winning one over. When those pitfalls intersect it seems possible Sorkin will once again subsume his own artistic prowess with too intently shouting a message. But as always you have to take the good with the bad with a writer-director like Sorkin: for every scene where Lucy flimsily stakes her claim for why she won’t let the dinner scene go, there’s a scene like the one where she ballsily stares down a boardroom and dares them to prevent her from hiring her Cuban-American husband as her TV husband. And for the beautifully open-ended place he leaves Lucy and Desi in, there’s a dramatically understated fight that tees up their closing beats. Here it works, elsewhere it doesn’t, but they all come from the same impulse.
On paper, Being the Ricardos is the sort of thing I chafe against. It’s the type of movie that I wish more people thought of when they instead (not knowing any better) cite Riverdale (my beloved): It’s a moody take on an upbeat property, all in the service of central performances that are often mere caricatures. And yet, in the end, Being the Ricardos largely often worked for me, at least more than I thought it would, transcending the barrier I usually hold in my heart for biopics. Its focus keeps it from dipping into too many cliches, and it manages to make its point sometimes artfully, if also hamfistedly. The film reminds us that Lucille Ball wasn’t an easy woman, and she didn’t have it any easier. But for 60 million people tuning in every week, she was willing to demand perfection and weather any number of storms we’ll never hear about. It was hard work, and — for all its dramatism — Being the Ricardos seeks to honor that.
Cate on West Side Story
There’s no way to get around the fact that Spielberg’s West Side Story is a modern masterpiece. In a year chock full of live-action musicals, this one rises above the rest. Helmed by a cast of Broadway regulars and shepherded to the screen by none other than Rita Moreno herself, West Side Story corrects for many of the flaws of the original while charting its own course.
Given how beloved the original musical has been, one could be forgiven for not seeing the value in revisiting the story. But that version had many “sins” to answer for, chief among them the rampant use of brown makeup to darken the faces of the actors involved. Spielberg’s version stuffs the cast full of Latinx actors primed for a breakout. David Alvarez’s Bernardo is rough and tumble and proud — a born leader and commander. Ariana DeBose as Anita — the role that made Moreno famous and earned her her Oscar — sparkles on screen and steals every scene she’s in. And newcomer Rachel Zeigler, though rougher in her acting, has a voice that makes goosebumps a Pavlovian response. Rounding out the cast is Mike Faist playing Riff as an engaging leader in his own right and Ansel Elgort as Tony.
The film nails the casting in a way that elevates the rest of the story. DeBose and Faist especially are captivating to watch and their scenes crackle with the wit and charm of experienced performers. But little of the story itself has changed. Instead, settings and numbers are shifted to breathe new life into the fable. Instead of rooftops or interiors, Spielberg relocates set pieces to the streets of New York, giving the story a more lived-in feel. What better way to extol the virtues of “America” than to stage the number in the America the characters know and love? The entire enterprise is brighter, warmer, and more inviting than its 1961 predecessor.
Veteran that he is, Spielberg also finally gets the filming of musical dance numbers right. Rather than jumping through space and time as so many other musicals are wont to do, Spielberg understands the need to let the camera actually show what the performers are doing. Wide shots dominate, but they don’t overwhelm. Low to the ground and kinetic as ever, the movie is aware that half of the appeal of this story is the musical numbers themselves. It gives them space to breathe and to be enjoyed to wondrous effect.
Speaking of the dancing, Justin Peck’s choreography builds off the spirit of Jerome Robbins’ work in the original film but finds ways to update its sensibility. Gone is the direct and glaring balletic influence. Instead, the Sharks and Jets are dancing by way of fights, rather than the other way around. It adds a grounded quality to the story that the 1961 version lacked. The cast here is literally lower to the ground, expressing their socioeconomic plights through movement.
Another notable choice in the film is the decision not to subtitle the Spanish. The Sharks speak to each other in their native tongue, the way they would in real life. There is a cultural refusal inherent in assuming a non-English speaking audience, and it’s a brave and admirable choice. In addition to reforming the casting, it is the biggest change that signals that this movie does not presume to be primarily for white viewers. While the film can’t undo the problems inherent in the story, it admirably updates things where possible.
Additionally, one of the biggest surprises in the film is that everyone can sing! One would think that low bar was a given for any movie musical, but that has not been the case. With seasoned performers accustomed to singing and dancing on screen, the much-loved numbers crackle to life with meaning and emotion. It’s here that Rachel Ziegler truly earns her keep. Crystal clear and overflowing with feeling, Ziegler’s numbers do much more to convince the audience of Maria’s plight than her acting. The girl is a star and her voice will take her places.
Unfortunately, as with every version of this story, Tony and Maria’s love story is the least interesting part of the narrative, but they provide a solid framework for the other characters to do their thing. In this version of the tale, the Sharks and Jets aren’t just reviving an ethnic scuffle. Instead, they’re both fighting for the right to control and remain in the small patch of New York they call home as the city rapidly gentrifies around them. It’s a vastly more contemporary concern, but it also gives both factions motivations that feel real and resonant. The tragic end of the story feels much more like it was inevitable based on the quickly coalescing stakes at hand. The fire and vitriol feel warranted.
In the end, West Side Story is a beautiful, well-crafted spectacle that feels like a long-awaited return of the studio musical. One can only hope that others take a page out of Spielberg’s book and create films as grand, buoyant, and wonderful as this one.
Assorted Internet Detritus
ZOSHA: Algorithms don’t know the real you. Climate change isn’t post-apocalyptic it’s now. The MCU lives at the end of the world just like the rest of us. Genuinely good news: Hawai’i is making it harder to travel to (and modeling more sustainable tourism in the process).
CATE: The dangers of treating women’s bodies like trendy fads, how to be poor, how streaming is changing pop music, West Side Story through the eyes of a scholar, and again through the eyes of Latinx critics, there’s nothing down Nightmare Alley, we spent a year in limbo, the best lesbian movies of 2021, navigating COVID for the holidays, and how West Side Story unearthed the history of its trans character.
If you’re just finding this newsletter, do us a favor and subscribe. It feeds our fragile egos. And if you’re already a loyal reader, help us out and tell a friend. (Seriously. Tell them!) In Issue #61, we’ll be discussing The Lost Daughter and Last Night In Soho, but we’ll be back bright and early on Monday with our first Sundance Festival dispatch.
Happy movie yelling!