Sunday, May 4, 2003

You'll love Rachel York more
than three-hour 'Lucy'

I love Lucy. I love Rachel York as Lucy. I just don't like Lucy, CBS' three-hour docudrama about Lucille Ball (8 p.m. today, Channels 12, 7).

York, the Broadway actress who won a 1996 Drama Desk Award for Victor/Victoria, is absolutely convincing as TV's favorite redhead. So is Danny Pino from The Shield as her husband, Desi Arnaz.

You'll hear then talking in the opening scenes, behind their dressing room doors, and you'll think you're hearing the real voices. They absolutely nail the parts.

Too bad the three-hour script - 50 percent longer than most TV movies - is written in such shorthand, with so many omissions.

Maybe I'm stomping sour grapes. Maybe I already know too much about Lucille Ball: how she flopped as a dancer and show girl, and foundered as a dramatic actress, before reinventing herself at age 40 as a comedian for the 1951 debut of I Love Lucy.

I wanted to see more about how Desi literally invented the three-camera sitcom format - still used today - and how they built the Desilu studios that produced The Untouchables, Make Room for Daddy, Mannix and Mission: Impossible.

I cringed at how the film fast-forwards through Lucy's life. She sees Desi on the studio lot in 1940, and in the next scene she's having dinner with him. When their marriage hits the skids due to Desi's repeated philandering, her divorce attorney instructs her not to sleep with him - and in the next shot they're headed to bed.

This show moves faster than that old I Love Lucy chocolate factory assembly line.

Ups and downs

Those who don't know much about Lucille Desiree Ball (1911-1989) may be fascinated by the details dramatized by executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, whose credits include the Oscar-winning Chicago and such TV movies as Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, Annie, The Music Man and Martin and Lewis.

Most of the first hour chronicles how young Lucy bounced in and around show business as a drama student (with Bette Davis), dancer, model, show girl and finally an actress. Her off-stage life had as many ups and downs, including her family's bankruptcy.

"Is it always going to be like this? Just when things are going good, something comes along and ruins everything? It's not fair!" says York as Lucy before heading to New York in 1931.

Lucy, 29, marries Desi, 23

In two years, she's headed to Hollywood to make second-tier "B" movies. Seven years later, she meets and marries the young actor-Cuban musician. She was 29; he was 23.

CBS' Lucy primarily focuses on their 20-year torrid and turbulent romance. Both the marriage, and their TV series, ended in 1960. However, the film doesn't mention the transition from the 1951-57 I Love Lucy to the 1957-60 one-hour specials called the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show.

As I said, these writers have some 'splainin' to do.

What Lucy does capture accurately is how the advent of TV - and their stubbornness - saved their careers after both had been dropped by the major studios. They resisted CBS' demands to move to New York to shoot the show, and to hire another actor to replace Desi, who was "too ethnic" for the network.

A CBS executive explains that viewers would be asking: "Why would Lucille Ball marry such a guy?... Husbands on this network don't wear frilly sleeves, shake their hips or bang a jungle drum!"

Surprise! Vance was younger

Though Lucy documents the prejudice, it glosses over the age factor. Lucy was 40 - 10 years older than Sid Caesar - when she arrived on TV. And while you see Lucy complaining that second banana Vivian Vance looked "too damn pretty," it doesn't mention that Vance - who played older TV neighbor Ethel Mertz - was actually younger than Lucy.

Lucy also botches a chance to show how Desi invented the three-camera sitcom shot before a studio audience, a format as fresh as Friends today. What obstacles did he encounter in the early tapings? How did he perfect the art form?

Lucy could have told us - but doesn't. The birth of the sitcom is condensed into a two-minute conversation by Arnaz and CBS brass in which the bandleader seemingly pulls the concept out of his bongos.

More major omissions

Except for the grape stomping, the film intentionally doesn't attempt to re-create the greatest I Love Lucy bits. Instead you'll see Lucy rehearsing the candy factory scene, repeating the Vitameatavegamin script, or making funny faces in a mirror.

That's nice, but the writers' selective memory drives me crazy. The movie doesn't mention the night in 1953 when 40 million people were watching "Little Ricky" being born on I Love Lucy at the same time Lucille Ball was giving birth to Desi Jr.

The film depicts Red Skelton and silent movie clown Buster Keaton giving Lucy comedic tips, while ignoring her pre-TV work with Bob Hope and the Marx Brothers.

And I disliked the hokey made-for-TV movie contrivance showing a panel of faceless studio executives deciding whether to renew performers' contracts.

Actors persevere

Yet York and Pino overcome these problems. They're remarkable mimics. Even the producers admit that Lucy couldn't have been made without York.

"We spent months and months seeing every living, breathing human being (for the part)," Zadan told TV critics in a recent conference call. "If she hadn't come along, and been as good as she was, we'd be sunk."

But be warned: You may not love this Lucy - but you'll love Rachel.


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