August 25, 2003 12:00 PM

By Stefan Kanfer

Critic’s Choice

You’d think that 14 years after Lucille Ball’s death, there wouldn’t be much ‘splainin’ left to do. The red-headed TV legend’s life is already an open, thumb-smeared book: Just three months ago her heartaches with Desi Arnaz were rehashed in an unrevelatory CBS movie. Ball of Fire is liberally sprinkled with interesting tidbits—at one point Ball was considered for the role of the Machiavellian mama that went to Angela Lansbury in 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate—but there are no fireball revelations. No fling with Fred Mertz.

Instead, what makes Ball of Fire an unexpected pleasure—and a rarity among Hollywood biographies—is Kanfer’s almost novelistic appreciation of how Ball evolved emotionally through her 77 years. Kanfer, the author of an admired bio of Groucho Marx, is best at evoking the poignant sadness of her childhood in Jamestown, N.Y., where little Lucy lost herself in dreams at the local fairground, and the final days when Ball, who had become a lonely old woman baffled that audiences preferred to see her only in I Love Lucy reruns, idled away her time by endlessly tidying up drawers. Ball has been an unwavering presence in our homes since 1951. With Ball of Fire, we’re projected back into the star’s personal world, and it’s as human as our own. (Knopf, $25.95)


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