A fascinating and affecting corrective counterpoint to the Johnny Cash mythos, “My Darling Vivian” offers a sympathetic portrait of the late country great’s first wife, Vivian Liberto, that stands in stark contrast to the woman’s unflattering depiction in the 2005 biopic “Walk the Line.”
To be sure, director Matt Riddlehoover’s documentary — which had been scheduled to premiere last month at the SXSW Film Festival, and instead bowed on Amazon Prime — often has the air of an authorized biography, in that it consists almost entirely of talking-heads testimonies by the couple’s four daughters, ranging in age from late 50s to mid-60s: singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, Kathy Cash Tittle, Cindy Cash, Tara Cash Schwoebel. But neither they nor the movie as a whole seem overly intent on revisionist score-settling with June Carter Cash, Johnny’s second wife, whom the women indicate took far more credit than she was entitled when it came to raising them, and who’s widely credited (again, according to the mythos) with “saving” their father from self-destruction after he divorced their mother.
Rather, the daughters are much more concerned with setting the record straight about a complex woman too long relegated to the status of a footnote, or worse, on those rare occasions when she’s been acknowledged at all.
“My Darling Vivian” was a labor of love, in more ways than one: Riddlehoover made it with his husband and production partner, Dustin Tittle, a grandson of Vivian and Johnny Cash. Deftly illustrating the testimonies with a treasure trove of material — photos, home movies, personal correspondence — provided by the daughters, the filmmakers have fashioned a narrative that begins as a sweet fairly-tale romance, then gradually turns sour.
The daughter of a devoutly Catholic Sicilian-American family in San Antonio, Vivian Liberto was 17 when she met Johnny Cash, then an Air Force cadet, at a skating rink. (During one of the documentary’s most amusing sequences, the daughters offer contradictory accounts of how he did, or didn’t, deliberately bump into her to break the ice.) They fell in love before he was shipped off to duty in Germany, and continued their relationship by exchanging love letters virtually on a daily basis. Occasionally, he would also send her recordings of spoken words, and songs.
They married shortly after his return to the United States, and moved to Memphis, where he hoped to find work — and soon launched his musical career with Sam Phillips of Sun Records. Before long, Johnny was on performance tours that lasted for weeks and months at a time, leaving Vivian to raise their slowly growing family more or less on her own. It was a pattern that continued — indeed, worsened — as his success allowed them to afford a spacious yet secluded mountaintop home in Casitas Springs, Calif.
It was supposed to be a dream house, but, as the daughters recall, dreams have a nasty habit of turning into nightmares. While their father was away for increasingly lengthy stretches, they were repeatedly bothered by unannounced (and unwanted) visits from fans, and plagued by even worse pests. At one point, Vivian used a shotgun to kill a large rattlesnake in their driveway.
Each of the daughters has memorable stories to tell — Cindy Cash remembers being distraught when she saw her father “killed” while guest-starring on an episode of TV’s “The Rebel” — but Rosanne Cash is the one who gets the lion’s share of screen time, and she uses it effectively. She is especially poignant as she remembers the first time her father seemed “different” (i.e., diminished by drug use) when he returned home, and how, even as a child, she could sense he was drifting awfully close to another entertainer, June Carter.
Arguably the most unsettling scenes in “My Darling Vivian” involve Johnny Cash’s 1965 arrest for possession of amphetamines in El Paso. When Vivian flew to Texas to stand by her man, many people who saw her in a widely disseminated news photo mistook the Sicilian-American as African-American — at a time when mixed-race marriages were illegal in several states, and racist hate-mongers would launch vicious attacks on anyone they thought might be “passing” for white. Vivian and her daughters feared (with ample justification) they might get a late-night visit from the KKK while alone in their mountaintop home, and Johnny felt compelled to release documentation to prove his wife was indeed Caucasian so she would not be threatened (and he could continue performing in the South).
“My Darling Vivian” repeatedly emphasizes that, while the couple’s divorce was inevitable after a certain point, Vivian (who died in 2005 at age 71) was most certainly not a shrill and nagging harpy who drove her man away, an impression one might easily get from “Walk the Line.” (Ironically, that biopic took its name from the title of a song Johnny actually wrote for his first wife.) Instead, the documentary persuasively makes the case that she was a loving mother who, despite her love for Johnny, simply wasn’t an infinitely patient wife.