Film

Review: Vivian Liberto Remembered as Johnny Cash’s First Wife in Touching New Documentary, My Darling Vivian

One of the many films set to debut at the ultimately cancelled SXSW Film Festival back in March, My Darling Vivian is the account of Vivian Liberto, the first wife of then-up-and-coming country singer Johnny Cash. She gave birth to and raised their four daughters—Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara—as his career took off in the late 1950s, into the 1960s. After he famously cheated on her with one of the industry’s most famous female country stars, June Carter, Cash not only essentially abandoned his first family but there was a concerted effort to erase Vivian’s name from the legend of Johnny Cash. For the most part, the film sets the record straight about Vivian’s sacrifices, her perseverance as a mother, and her growing resentment toward her husband about his prolonged absences—told from the perspective of the four daughters, all of whom are interviewed for the documentary.

My Darling Vivian

Image courtesy of The Film Collaborative

Using an abundance of archival photographs, home movies, and news coverage throughout Cash’s career, the movie paints a remarkably clear picture of the whirlwind romance that took place in 1951, when a young Catholic-Italian girl living in San Antonio met Cash, who was about two weeks from shipping out to Germany to serve in the Air Force for three years. After thousands of letters went back and forth, Cash returned and the two married immediately in 1954. Almost nine months later to the day, Rosanne was born. But it was in that first year that Cash’s career began to gain some heat, and by 1961, the Man in Black was a household name.

If I had one major complaint about My Darling Vivian, it’s that we almost never hear her actual voice in any of the clips. I’m guessing that’s for a multitude of reasons that might include the fact that most of the family’s home movies were silent and perhaps footage of her voice doesn’t exist in large quantities. But if anything would have driven home that she was a fully formed, hard-working wife and mother, it would been to hear her speak. There is footage of her near the end of the movie being interviewed long after she and Cash were divorced that reveals that she has a beautiful, fairly prominent and polished Texas accent. Still, her daughters are staunch defendants of their mother’s strength and mental anguish at never knowing when Cash would be home again. This was especially trying when the couple moved to Casitas Springs, California, in the hills occupied largely by snakes, bobcats, and rabid fans who felt the need to stop by the house at all hours.

The film never gives the impression that Cash tried to hide his wife and children while they were married. In fact, his status as a family man was a big part of his image in those first 10 years, and the Cash clan would frequently show up in idealized photos in national magazines to boost his image. But there were still scandals, including a particularly ugly one that exploded when a photo of Johnny and Vivian showed up, and a paper accused Cash of secretly being married to a black woman. Cash and his team had to launch a full-scale denial program, just to be allowed to play concerts in the south again. The examples of Vivian being effectively edited from the Johnny Cash story are many and are frankly disgusting, especially when June began to refer to the girls in interviews as her daughters and acted like she helped raised them, even though she spent very little time with them over the years.

One of the more interesting sequences in the film involves the making of the Cash biopic Walk the Line, in which Vivian is portrayed as a half-crazed, overly demanding obstacle that Cash must overcome in order to get off drugs and let June save his life. The drug years in Cash’s life were especially hard on his family, so this portrayal of her during that time seems especially cruel. (The parody version of Vivian during that time in Cash’s life is brilliantly portrayed by Kristen Wiig in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.) After reading the Walk the Line script, the daughters were determined never to let their mother see the film, and both thankfully and sadly, she passed away before the award-winning film was released.

Directed, produced and edited by Matt Riddlehoover, My Darling Vivian traces its subject’s life practically from cradle to grave, and includes some very moving stories toward the end of Cash’s life when he and Vivian were able to get together and reconcile to a degree. It’s clear that Cash was the love of her life, even though she remarried even before he did, if only to avoid Cash’s inevitable nuptials to June causing her further embarrassment. The film is a moving portrait of a women made to feel inferior by her parents, her husband, and eventually most of the world. She was pushed to breaking, kept it together, and survived while paying a price many times over. The film is a love letter to a worthy mother from her daughters, but it’s also a sincere effort to set the record straight and reclaim Vivian’s role in Cash’s legacy. And rest assured, there will likely be a few times throughout where you’ll tear up.

The film is now available on VOD and through most streaming services.

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