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Amy Poehler on the Eternal Allure of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

The actress and director has a new documentary about the famous couple.

american actress lucille ball 1911   1989 with her husband desi arnaz 1917   1986, circa 1953 photo by fpggetty images
FPG

Amy Poehler can’t quite pinpoint her first memory of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in I Love Lucy. For her, she says, the 1950s sitcom “felt like it came with your television, like it was just always on.”

“I do remember my parents watching it—the sound of it in my house—and then revisiting it later when I was older,” Poehler tells BAZAAR.com over Zoom. “Like any good art, you watch it again when you’re in a different place and you see different things. I see so much ensemble work. I’m blown away by how grounded Lucy is and how she plays things, even though I remembered everything being so silly and big, and also just how good it looks. Desi insisted that it was shot on film, and that’s why we still watch it—because it looks so beautiful.”

Ball—the small-screen icon who became the first woman to run a major television studio—has been having a moment. She's reappeared on the big screen as the fictional harridan Lucille Doolittle (Christine Ebersole) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, and as her larger-than-life, no-nonsense self (Nicole Kidman) in Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos. And now Poehler's documentary, Lucy and Desi, is out on Amazon Prime.

In her documentary directorial debut, Poehler explores the unlikely partnership of one of the most prolific power couples in entertainment history. Featuring interviews with the likes of Norman Lear, Carol Burnett and Bette Midler, plus never-before-seen audio tapes that were discovered by the couple’s daughter, Lucie Arnaz, the new documentary offers an intimate look at two trailblazers whose lives remained inextricably connected until the very end.

Below, Poehler reflects on Ball and Arnaz’s legacy, the challenges of sifting through countless hours of footage to make her first documentary, and the way TV can speak to us like no other medium.


You’ve directed TV episodes and narrative features before, but how did the opportunity to direct this documentary first come to you?

I was approached by Ron Howard and the gang at [the production company] Imagine [Entertainment] about directing, and I just thought, What would be my way in? Could I present Lucy and Desi in a way that would be interesting cinematically? I started getting very excited. When I choose a project, it’s usually pretty organic—it's about what I would be interested in spending the next couple of years working on.

I was so grateful that I was working on a doc like this during a pandemic, not only because it allowed me a lot of time to work and do homework and do research and get things ready, but also I just laughed. I was around comedy all the time. We all did that as a nation anyway. We all went back to the TV shows that we loved when we were scared and things were unsure, so it was great to be able to do that on this project.

amy poehler lucy and desi
Amy Poehler editing footage for Lucy and Desi.
EPK

Lucy and Desi were, at one point, the most famous couple in America, and their lives were so well-documented that many people don’t seem to realize—or don’t want to accept—that they ended up marrying different people after divorcing in 1960. What do you think it is about these two trailblazers that continues to fascinate subsequent generations?

That’s such a good question because we’re talking about a TV show that was on 70 years ago. They were true outsiders, and I think that you sense it when you’re watching them in the 1950s—that they were these two very skilled performers who were kind of ready. I like to think of the project as two songs that were playing in different spaces, and when the mashup came together, it was like the best song ever. They were married and they did love each other, and that’s often not very interesting to watch. But with Lucy and Desi, there was just this real vibe and electricity between them.

I also think that—[and] not to get too macro here—they represented a time in America that was very specific, a very post-war capitalist boom where gender roles were really entrenched, but America was changing. The simple idea that this woman was married to this Cuban band leader and even though he seemed like the boss, she ran the show, and how they were equal partners in business for most of their lives—it was just really fascinating. So it talked about gender and economics and what makes an American—all this really big stuff that just was underneath just a funny show.

Lucy and Desi’s stories have been told many times across various mediums, but you opted to build a documentary around their love story. What were some of the biggest challenges that you and the rest of your producing team faced while crafting this piece?

We really wanted to create a three-act arc of their life together, because it’s naturally the case that their lives mirrored an episode of the show: things went very wrong and then came back around, and everybody was reminded that things can be repaired. One of the hardest things was trying to figure out how to explain Desi’s early life and early trauma in a way that connected to his actions. We didn’t want to editorialize that that was the reason for his actions, because that that’s just conjecture. But we wanted to try to keep his early story held back until we knew more about him, because the man that he presents and what the boy went through are so different. I just think, like, What an amazing story to tell there.

lucy and desi
Library of Congress

Why was it so important for you to humanize them with their own audio recordings, given how mythical they have become in popular culture?

Once you become mythical, people forget you’re a human being with wants and needs and that you make mistakes and that you’re messy. And I’m always fascinated by the way people tell their own stories, because you can tell a lot by what people don’t say [and] how they tell it. Even though Lucy and Desi are talking about their lives—and I tend to think that people aren’t always the most reliable narrators about their own lives—you can sense how they’re feeling by what they leave out.

There’s a moment in the film where our interviewer was asking Lucy about her miscarriage, and it, to me, sums up so much of what women were dealing with at that time. The interviewer asks her, "Do you think because you were working all the time and doing vaudeville that you lost the baby?" And Lucy just kind of pauses and says, "I don’t know." You could have 10 experts talk about what it was like being a working woman in the 1950s or a famous woman whose pregnancy was revealed by Walter Winchell, but just to hear Lucy in that moment is, I think, so interesting and is where we find our way in.

There’s a striking sense of intimacy and honesty in Lucy and Desi’s voices as they reflect on their time together, and I was moved by Lucy’s final conversation with Desi and the speech that Desi wrote for Lucy when she was honored at the Kennedy Center. Is there a particular moment that really struck you when you re-examined their relationship and noticed that there was a lot of love between them, even in the end?

Those are two very special and moving moments [that] you’re referring to. Lucy is honored at the Kennedy Center near the end of her life, five days after Desi passes away, and Desi writes a note that’s read to her, and it’s obviously still very moving to her. I liked any time we could get inside when they talk about love, because the title of the most famous TV show ever is called I Love Lucy, and the word love is in the title, and I really wanted love to be in the movie. And the way you do it is you just get very small about two people and what it looks like. They happen to be famous and successful and everybody knew who they were, but they were just two people in love. So that was the goal: to go really big and then get really small.

please contact your account representative for licensing use on merchandise andor resale products fine art prints, wall décor, gallery, nonprofit or museum displays mandatory credit photo by leonard mccombethe life picture collectionshutterstock 12141377a lucille ball and desi arnaz on the launch of desilu studios,  pondering their new venture lucille ball and desi arnaz on the launch of desilu studios, pondering their new venture, hollywood, california, usa
Leonard Mccombe/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

There are so many people who turned to Parks & Recreation as a balm during the early months of the pandemic, because Leslie Knope’s optimism is something that we need more than ever right now. What do you make of the legacy of that show?

Well, I think that television gets to the heart of us in a way that nothing else does, and if there’s a show that you can watch with your family, it’s oftentimes the only point of the day where you’re all together. I Love Lucy was a show [where] the family was gathered around the TV, which was like a fire. They watched her have a baby, and they watched them be in love, and they watched the nosy neighbors. And I feel so grateful that Parks & Rec was in any way like that, like "Oh, this is a show that I can watch with my kids, I could watch with my partner." Like, this feeling that we’re in it together, that we’re gonna be okay.

I’m with you—I really needed someone like Leslie during the pandemic to tell me those things, to keep the engine going. [Laughs.] To stay optimistic—I think we all needed that, I think we needed an engine, and I think TV can do that like no other medium.

I always loved the dynamic between Lucy and Ethel on I Love Lucy. In your friendship with Tina Fey, who’s Lucy and who’s Ethel?

I think we’re both Desi; that’s my answer. [Smiles.] No, but I love Lucy and Ethel so much too because they spawned all these female relationships. They were the first television relationship where women conspired and went on adventures together and got to be really funny together. They had great jokes, and they were both incredible physical performers. Vivian Vance was an incredible actress, and when you watch I Love Lucy, you see her work and it’s really special.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Lucy and Desi is now streaming on Prime Video.

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