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Amy Poehler on Her Documentary ‘Lucy and Desi’


amy poehler, lucille ball, desi arnaz

Courtesy Amazon Studios and Getty Images

When filmmaker Ron Howard approached Amy Poehler about doing a documentary on famed couple and I Love Lucy comedy show duo Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, she instinctively dove head first—in typical Lucy Ricardo fashion—into the couple’s archives. “It was really important for me to hear as much from Lucy and Desi—the people—as we could, so we really started digging into the recordings,” Poehler tells me via Zoom from New York City. Some of the audio tapes that were discovered came from a long interview that Ball did with late Ladies’ Home Journal writer Elizabeth Hoffman. “Lucille had a great experience with Betty and I believe they were working on a book at the time.”

More audio tapes were found quite by accident during the filmmaking process itself. “It was really exciting: We literally found them in a shoe box on a shelf,” Poehler muses. “It became like a fun treasure hunt to find some more of those recordings, and a lot of them hadn’t been heard publicly before.”

Poehler’s desire for the film was to create one where the audience would care about the love story between Ball and Arnaz. “I wanted to present it in the same way that I Love Lucy portrayed this idea of rupture and repair,” she says. Indeed, there was nothing Lucy could do on the television show—whether it was to have an all-out pillow fight, completely ruin a kitchen, or act out some other crazy idea that inevitably went wrong—that couldn’t be solved, fixed or forgiven in the end. “I think that structure of the show could even be applied to their life, and I wanted to show how complicated that was.”

Poehler speaks to ELLE.com about how, in making the film (available to stream today on Amazon Prime) she saw so many moving parts to the couple who took their brand of humor very seriously, broke racial and gender barriers, and had a knack for keeping it together—even when everything fell apart.

First of all, as a comedic actor yourself, making this film must have been a dream project for you.

What was so great about having so much material from the tapes is that there was a lot of comedy that we could build into the piece. We got to show Lucy and Desi at work and portray just how funny they are. We laughed a lot, and I remember watching hours and hours of seeing them perform in different ways. It was thrilling to watch how they separately approached their work. Desi, being the musician that he was, entered the process with a bit more fluidity. Lucille, on the other hand, was much more steadfast and precise. Seeing that complementary difference in a new way was pretty cool.

As the queen of comebacks, Lucille Ball would be happy to know that she’s having a succession of comebacks in our current pop culture. There’s Being the Ricardos with Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem in addition to Lucy and Desi. Why do you think it’s important for millennials and younger people who may not know much about Lucy to understand her comedic genius?

I really wanted to present this story as a modern one. In Lucy and Desi, I think people will see two outsiders and two gatekeepers who were not typical of the 1950s. They were a very modern couple: a white woman and a Cuban American and recent refugee who changed the game. They took huge risks and they used the power they had to lift people up. They’re really an example of “If you can see it, you can be it.” And they were just this incredible, super-famous power couple who also had this very famous divorce. I think watching it from purely that level will be interesting for both millennials and Gen-Z.

lucille ball and desi arnaz

Courtesy of Desilu, Library of CongressGetty Images

I loved hearing from their children (Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill and Desi Arnaz Jr.) as well as Lucille Ball’s brother, Fred Ball. Carol Burnett and Bette Milder also give commentary, among others. Was it challenging to get everyone on board or were they all eager to participate?

We wanted the commentators to keep Lucy and Desi alive and present and modern. We also wanted to show the difference between the people we knew from television and the people that existed in the world, so we really tried to stick to people who had met Lucy and Desi as much as we could.

We were really lucky that everyone was excited to be a part of it from Carol Burnett and Bette Midler and the inimitable Charo [Spanish-American actress]. We also had [television writer] Norman Lear. There was the family: Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, Desi Arnaz Jr. and Fred Ball, who I was obsessed with [laughs]. We also had Gregg Oppenheimer, the son of the great showrunner Jess Oppenheimer—well as David Daniels who is the son of director Mark Daniels. It was just a point of view of what it was like for their fathers to be part of this giant Hollywood machine. We really lucked out on who we got to talk to.

There are so many things on the tapes and in the documentary that I think even the biggest of Lucy and Desi fans might not know. Was there anything on the tapes that surprised you?

Oh, so much! I didn’t know that Desi basically brought the conga line to the U.S. The dance that your aunts are still doing at your cousin’s wedding is because of Desi. I didn’t know that Lucy was in the film business for as long as she was before she was on television even though I knew she got her start in radio. I thought it was really interesting to find out how hard she fought to have Desi play her husband on the TV show and how unusual that was at the time. Just the fact that they went on the road to see how the public would react to them as a couple from two totally different backgrounds for the show’s proof of concept, was a bold thing to do. It was all the ways that they bucked the system—they did things their way and because of them we have the process of television that we still use today.

I appreciated the balance in the documentary in that we learn a lot about Desi’s illustrious background, his hardships, and how despite everything, he was determined to forge ahead. This balance of placing equal emphasis on both Desi and Lucy must have been important.

Yes! We wanted to remind people how innovative Desi really was: He was an incredible producer with an astute sense of hiring the right people—and of course, he was an incredibly skilled musician. He was also an outsider. He was a Latin man at a time when Latin men were not only not allowed on [American] TV, but not allowed to run the room and be the boss.

I spoke to a lot of people who not only learned English from watching I Love Lucy, but Desi was the first Latin man that they even saw on TV so it gave them a sense of pride and a sense of something to aspire to. I feel that that side of the story has never been told in the way that it should be.

I Love Lucy broke social norms and barriers on so many levels. As Cuban playwright Eduardo Machado said, it was a TV (and real life) marriage between “a white woman and a darker person”—which you touched on. The show also portrayed how a woman could have a strong personality and role in a marriage. Also, before Lucy and Ethel, women were often pitted against each other on television. But as Journey Gunderson (Executive Director of the National Comedy Center) said in her commentary, in I Love Lucy, Lucy and Ethel were true partners in crime: “they conspired, commiserated, and kept each other in check”.

It was really important for us to show that there’s a lot of information out there that likes to pit Lucille Ball and Vivan Vance [who played Ethel] against each other, but really they were friends until the end of their lives—they were extremely close. They worked together many times after I Love Lucy because they genuinely loved working with each other. It was Lucy and Ethel who spawned onscreen female friendships like Rhoda and Mary and Laverne and Shirley. Lucy and Ethel were each other’s number one accomplices and they were in it together. When you watch I Love Lucy, one of the things you realize is how much Ethel and Lucy do together. Vivian was an incredible actress in her own right and she was a staunch ally to Lucy on TV and in real life.

A lot of people don’t know this, but I Love Lucy started the idea of reruns. It was Desi’s suggestion when I Love Lucy went on hiatus.

The reruns were started because Lucille Ball had a baby and the couple couldn’t go back to work because she needed a minute [laughs]. So they thought, well why don’t we play an episode that has already been aired? The company thought it was ridiculous because why would anyone want to watch something they’ve already seen, again. But they tried it and it worked.

original caption 10261952los angeles, ca audience warmup is an important part of the desilu productions weekly television filming dressed for the first scene, desi arnaz tells the audience something about the film theyre about to witness, then introduces his wife and co star, lucille ball

BettmannGetty Images

What were the main reasons for the breakdown of Lucy and Desi’s marriage?

My hope wasn’t even to try and figure that out, but I did want to show the trauma that both Lucy and Desi went through early in their lives that quite frankly was never discussed. Today we’re smart enough to know that trauma informs a lot of people’s decisions—even subconsciously. I also thought it was fascinating to portray their partnership in all different ways. They were partners in business, in life, they were parenting partners, and then they became new and different partners after the divorce. I just loved the long epicness of the way that they stayed in each other’s lives. Even though the divorce was so shocking to so many people at the time—and was so hard on both of them—they continued to love each other and they stayed in and out of each other’s lives for the rest of their lives.

I love that when Lucy learned that Desi had cancer and was nearing the end she went to see him and they watched the I Love Lucy reruns together and revisited that time in their lives. And that the last time they spoke was incidentally on what would have been their wedding anniversary. It was kind of their own perfect ending in a way.

They kind of got back to what we used to watch them do all the time. They had the belief that no matter how many mistakes they made, or how many misunderstandings they had, at the end they were going to tell each other that they loved each other. It was a beautiful full-circle moment and we wanted the film to show that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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