Review: My Darling Vivian (2020)

My Darling Vivian (2020)

Directed by: Matt Riddlehoover | 90 minutes | documentary, biography, music | Starring: Vivian Liberto, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Rosanne Cash, Tara Cash, Kathy Cash, Cindy Cash, Tommy Cash, Ray Cash, Carrie Cash, Dick Clark, Larry King, David Letterman, Merv Griffin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Willie Nelson, Shelley Winters, Kris Kristofferson, Albert Brooks, Elvis Presley, Lucille Ball, Peter Falk, Whoopi Goldberg, John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Kristen Wiig, Ginnifer Goodwin, Holly Hunter, Tim Robbins, Ryan Phillippe

It was one of the movies of 2005: ‘Walk the Line’. The biographical film about the rise and fall of country superstar Johnny Cash and especially about his stormy love affair with fellow musician June Carter. The film was praised by the press and the public, not least because of the great performances by lead actors Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon and their powerful chemistry between them. Cash’s first wife, Vivian Liberto, got off to a rough start in “Walk the Line,” while the film’s title ironically comes from a song Cash had just written for his first wife. That was not due to the actress who played her, Ginnifer Goodwin, but to the one-sided way in which the character was written. Vivian would have been a pushy whiner who was jealous of June and sent Johnny straight into her arms for her meddling. She would not have supported him enough during his career and was even blamed for his slip into drink and drugs. The truth is, of course, much more nuanced. Rosanne, Kathy, Tara, and Cindy, Johnny and Vivian’s four daughters, were eager to correct that misperception of their mother.

In particular, the fact that June Carter gets too much credit for her role in the upbringing of the foursome, they wanted to straighten out. They are now doing this with the fascinating and compelling documentary ‘My Darling Vivian’ (2020), incidentally without pointing too much in the other direction with an accusing finger. Instead, they restore their mother, who passed away in 2005. Together with filmmaker Matt Riddlehoover – the life partner of Dustin Tittle, a grandson of Vivian and Johnny – they show that their mother is a complex woman, who was many times more than just a footnote in the life and career of Johnny Cash. Because the four daughters play such a prominent role in this documentary, Riddlehoover had access to many hours of unique footage in the form of private photos, home videos and personal letters. For example, we see how Vivian, daughter of a deeply religious Sicilian-American family from San Antonio, Texas, meets Cash, who was then a cadet in the Air Force, on a roller skating rink at the age of 17. They fall in love, but then Johnny is sent to Germany. During that period, they wrote love letters to each other almost every day. Not long after Johnny returns to the US, they get married. In the meantime, he is building up his career as a singer-songwriter and after their move to Memphis and the meeting with Sam Phillips of Sun Records, things suddenly go very fast.

Where Johnny stays away from home more and more often, sometimes for months at a time, Vivian is alone at home with their four daughters. The more successful Johnny became, the harder it became for Vivian. In their new home in Casitas Springs, California, high atop a mountain and remote from civilization, she languishes. The only visit that comes by is unannounced – and unwanted: pushy fans to whom Vivian has no message. And then there’s the pests that harass them; Vivian even has to shoot the rattlesnakes with a gun to keep them away from her children. Rosanne remembers well that the few times she was home, he behaved ‘differently’ because of his heavy and increasing drug use. In 1965 Johnny was even arrested in El Paso for possessing amphetamines. Vivian flew straight to Texas to assist her husband, but the photo that was taken of the couple would haunt her for a long time to come. In the photo, her complexion was so dark that people thought she was African American, and intermarriage wasn’t exactly widely accepted (and illegal in some states) in the mid-1960s. From that moment on, Vivian feared that the Ku Klux Klan might visit her at any moment in her secluded home. Johnny immediately went after his wife’s birth certificates; not least because he himself wanted to continue performing in the south of the US.

The convincing ‘My Darling Vivian’ starts as a loving reliving of a warm romance, but the relationship between Vivian and Johnny becomes increasingly bitter. The couple’s four daughters seized the opportunity to emphasize that the stories that exist about their mother are far from the truth. They remember her as a loving mother who certainly didn’t begrudge her husband his success, but didn’t like all the ‘edges’ surrounding fame – she was much happier in their humble home in Memphis – and simply didn’t want to wait forever for her husband finally returned home. ‘My Darling Vivian’ is therefore a loving rehabilitation of a woman who has always stood in the shadow of her husband, and who actually thought that place was fine, but was not always well understood.

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