Actress, comedian and director Amy Poehler’s new documentary, Lucy and Desi, intimately follows the spectacularly talented duo of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, told largely through previously unreleased tapes of the pair. With finesse and equal weight on both sides of the team, Poehler takes viewers into the work and personal lives of the groundbreaking entertainers.
“There are a million versions of Lucy and Desi’s story,” says Poehler, “and part of the excitement of making the film is being able to focus on what you choose. I wanted to show the world the people behind the icons.”
As an I Love Lucy fan, I – and probably most people – thought I knew a lot about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. What I didn’t realize was how traumatized her childhood was. And it was a loud trauma without help. Did you already know that before the project or did it surprise you too?
No, just like you, I didn’t know. It’s interesting to discuss trauma; we look at the word trauma and it wasn’t a word that was used in the 50’s and 60’s. Lucy and Desi belonged to a generation that didn’t talk much about what happens to you; How are you doing? There were no words attached to it. Even the idea of it being labeled as such, how things that happened to you could affect your life in some way was an alien concept that didn’t exist. It’s such a new idea.
The fact that Desi Arnaz even went straight is quite amazing, not to mention that he accomplished everything he did.
Yes, he watched as his city burned down behind him as he left home [during the 1933 Cuban Batista revolution] with his father in prison and his whole family torn apart and came to a country where he didn’t speak the language and had really lost everything in his life. I think people assume that because he wasn’t from this country he had some really bad experiences growing up, but actually he was in a highly privileged family with a lot of access and money and it was gone right away .
Lucy had this really busy childhood in upstate New York [and] then had a family tragedy in which her father died young and her grandfather went bankrupt through an accident. The reason it’s important to tell their stories is because they made these really big bets, they really bet on themselves – and on each other – over and over again and it was because they had a sense of how it feels to lose everything; too many things have been taken away from them. It also gave them a really interesting relationship with work and success.
They were obviously both workaholics – another more modern term.
[Laughs] Yes, the idea of a woman like Lucy being in charge in any way back then was so novel and unique. But even in this world, Desi was a complete outsider in many ways, and they both had this incredible journey in their own lives where they were given access to places where Cuban Americans and women weren’t allowed to enter the room.
They also balanced their contributions in the film; so often he’s portrayed as some kind of happy sidekick. Still, his achievements in the industry were large and enduring.
I think Desi’s story got a little lost. My question was: What does a successful partnership look like? I could go all day naming Lucy and Desi’s long accomplishments and how successful they have been, how ahead of their time and how funny and talented, but it’s also amazing how much they’ve accomplished since they’re no longer officially “together”. . These were two people genuinely ready to do their best work as a couple — and how they continued to work together. Your third act is really interesting to me after I Love Lucy is over.
Hearing their own voices on private tapes was so intimate and revealing…
One of the goals with people like Lucy and Desi becoming such iconic characters – you kind of forget they were human. I really wanted to keep them alive and the best way to do that is to hear their voices. I had a more unique position with this documentary. A documentary space often says, “Hey, there’s this world you don’t know about, let me take you there.” But with Lucy and Desi, they’re so well-known that it’s the other side. “Actually, there are two people here, let me tell you about them.”
There’s the quote from Lucy on tape where she says she only went into comedy because she ran out of other ideas. And that she’s not a particularly funny person. She doesn’t “think” funny.
She came to comedy as an actress; She came in through this door. She studied it very intensively and learned her craft, which she was proud of. And that’s one of the reasons the show has such a long history. Many people ask why the show is still worth watching. My answer is: 1) Desi pushed to shoot it on film so it still looks nice. 2) Lucy was an actress who played everything very real and grounded and that’s why her performance is still so entertaining. There’s never a scene where Lucy isn’t really in the moment.
How was working with your daughter Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill?
Lucie gave us a lot of access. I loved working with her because I really like her as a person – I find her really warm and open. It can’t be easy constantly sharing her parents and family with the world. She was able to give us perspective, especially at the end of her parents’ lives, where they stood and how they felt about each other. I was really thankful that she could do that. She also wanted us to get in there and tell the story that we wanted to tell, and I think she’s happy with what we were able to tell.
How was the documentary received, especially by the fans?
It was great, especially with Amazon [Prime Video] and the fact that they were able to roll it out so beautifully in so many homes at once. It also caught my attention how we all feel fear and many people turn to comedy when they are feeling particularly isolated – many people turned to I Love Lucy throughout this time. Comedy has a way of helping people feel that human connection. It was an incredible project to work on during COVID and still be laughing and reflecting on the big themes of talented comedy partnerships.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-06-17/amy-poehler-lucy-and-desi-documentary The humans behind the comedy icons Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz