We gave it a D-
Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter is being described by CBS as ”a dramatic love story” about the lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and received a lot of advance publicity for a nationwide talent hunt to find fresh faces to play the famous duo. In the end, the producers settled on Pink Cadillac‘s Frances Fisher and All My Children‘s Maurice Benard. The TV movie begins in 1940, the year the comic duo met, and ends in 1951, when the first season of I Love Lucy made them major stars.
The idea behind the teleplay, by William Luce and Cynthia A. Cherbak, is to show Ball and Arnaz as young show-biz fighters hungry for success. In practice, unfortunately, our protagonists are reduced to the simplest stereotypes: According to Lucy & Desi, Arnaz was an incurable womanizer (”Gee, that Desi is a dreamboat!” is a typical line from one of Arnaz’s typical female conquests), while Ball was a self-righteous bore (”I was raised with |certain values. I know what I believe in; I know what I stand for,” says Fisher’s Ball in one of many such proclamations).
There’s not much Benard can do with Desi’s character. The actor doesn’t resemble the Cuban-born bandleader very much, and he’s stuck with saying things like, ”Lucy, as far as Hollywood is concerned, I play only one instrument: second fiddle, to you.” Fisher fares better; her face will remind you of Ball’s angularity, and she does a good job of imitating Ball’s pop-eyed double takes and breathless screeching.
But reducing a TV legend to the banal story of a troubled marriage (”You don’t love me — you don’t respect me!” sobs Fisher) is a woeful mistake. The couple’s real-life daughter, Lucie Arnaz, has been telling interviewers that she disapproves of this movie; Arnaz, now the star of CBS’ Sons and Daughters, had the right instincts. In Lucy & Desi, CBS has ended up trashing two of its most illustrious stars.