Spoilers for ‘My Darling Vivian’
If there was ever an American musical legend after Elvis Presley, it was Johnny Cash. Who among us has not heard the name, loved his music and occasionally commented on his YouTube videos with, “I miss that era of music”? Seldom, however, do we think of Cash outside his world of singing country and blues, enthralling audiences everywhere.
And even if we think of Cash as a family man, June Carter Cash is where the mind goes to. Hardly anyone knows or remembers his first wife Vivian Liberto. ‘My Darling Vivian’ from filmmaker Matt Riddlehoover aims to change that for us. At a little over 90 minutes, the documentary paints a startlingly life-like portrait of an elegant woman who wasn’t prepared for fame.
The story of Vivian Liberto and Cash falling in love, getting married, struggling to make ends meet, facing stardom and eventually falling out of love is as heartbreaking as Vivian was beautiful. Told through the testimonies of her four daughters — Rosanne Cash, Kathy Cash Tittle, Cindy Cash, and Tara Cash Schwoebel — ‘My Darling Vivian’ is often painful to witness, especially as Rosanne describes how after her mother’s 13-year marriage to the singer ended in divorce, Vivian “faded into negative obscurity”.
The film produced by Dustin Tittle, Kathy’s son and Vivian’s grandson, is also lush in its material. It is rich in not just anecdotes, but also in never-before-seen footage and photographs of the singer and his first wife. For any lover of music and for any fan of Cash, it is a veritable gold mine of lost memories.
And where it is rich in story, it is also heavy in its criticism of popular culture’s meager and often terrible portrayal of Vivian. It refers to 2005’s ‘Walk the Line’ that through powerful performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, focuses on Cash and June. But the movie reduces Vivian (played by Ginnifer Goodwin) to angry and petty and a host of other negative epithets. It made their marriage look troubled. And perhaps it was in the later years. But in the early years, the daughters recalled that Cash was often made fun of for still holding his wife’s hands all the time, even after five years of marriage.
Ironically, as the daughters claimed, ‘Walk the Line’ was a love song Cash had written for Vivian.
That Vivian wasn’t prepared for the fame (and all the troubles like the addiction and the notoriety that came with it) is all too visible from her daughter’s recollection of Vivian admitting that her happiest memories from the marriage were from Memphis when they were too broke to afford groceries.
And her seven-year nightmare living in California, often waiting for her celebrity husband to get home (which he seldom did), and a race scandal — a photo of Vivian and Cash published in a newspaper led people to believe she was black and led to threatening letters from the Ku Klux Klan — pushing her to a mental breaking point and eventual divorce is proof of that. Her daughters narrate in heartbreaking detail how June’s entry into their lives took a toll on their mother. How the divorce that led to a temporary excommunication from the Catholic church affected Vivian, who grew up in a staunchly religious household.
‘My Darling Vivian’ is a spectacular documentary in many regards. But what sets it apart is the personal nature of it. Too often, biographical documentaries can feel voyeuristic. But Riddlehoover’s deft filmmaking makes viewers feel welcome. It’s not a shameful secret. It’s a proud correction of historical perception. It’s a thing of beauty. And as we know after the end credits roll, so was Vivian.
‘My Darling Vivian’ is part of Amazon Prime Video’s SXSW 2020 Film Festival Collection which is available to be streamed from April 27–May 6.