In 2005’s “Walk the Line,” the first wife of Johnny Cash, Vivian Liberto, got short shrift, even though they were married for 13 years and had four daughters together.
In the film, Ginnifer Godwin played Vivian as she was written — as someone who drove Cash away from their home in California because she objected to his being away for so long while touring and leaving her alone with four young children.
But as “My Darling Vivian” makes clear, that’s not exactly true.
Drawing on thousands of handwritten letters between Johnny and Vivian, as well as upon homemade movies, director Matt Riddlehoover shows how Vivian was very much the early love of his life. Most notably, the film includes interviews with all four of their daughters, Rosanne Cash, Kathy Cash Tittle, Cindy Cash and Tara Cash Schwoebel. And each one of those daughters talks lovingly about their mom and tries to set the record straight on her relationship with their father.
They make it clear that the marriage started to end not because of Cash’s absences, although that certainly added to marital strains. Instead, the say that when Cash would return home from touring in the last years of their marriage, that he acted different — and was obviously becoming a drug addict.
Vivian, who had a dark Italian complexion and dark hair, raced to his side when Cash was arrested in El Paso for possession of amphetamines in 1965. And a news photo at the time led newspapers to print that Cash was married to a Black woman. Today, that might seem absurd. But mixed-race marriages were still illegal in several states, and it would be two years before Loving vs. Virginia would settle the legality of such marriages. And as you might expect, record companies worried that Cash would be banned from playing venues in the South. So Cash representatives had to provide evidence of Vivian’s Sicilian heritage and calm the waters. It was absurd.
This was not something that the deeply private Vivian planned to face. She met Cash while he was in the military and stationed at a based in San Antonio. They met at a rollerskating rink in the summer of 1951, and when he was sent overseas shortly afterward, they started exchanging the letters, which Cash would begin with “My Darling Vivian.”
They were married when Cash returned to the U.S. in 1954, and soon moved to Memphis, before settling in southern California. And Vivian was soon pregnant with Rosanne. One of Cash’s first big hits was “I Walk the Line,” was basically a love song to Vivian. But, of course, the movie “Walk the Line” was basically a love song to Cash’s second wife, June Carter — an irony not lost of Vivian’s daughters.
In the movie and in the Cash mythos, June Carter is the one of saved the country singer from drug addiction and helped him achieve superstardom. The Cash daughters don’t seem intent on tearing June Carter down. And “My Darling Vivian” is far from a revenge film. But it does try to set the record straight on Vivian’s life.
There’s a film clip near the end of the film, however, where June Carter acts as though she has been playing mother to Vivian’s four daughters — which wasn’t true, of course. And these kinds of statements led to a life of what her daughters considered to be “negative obscurity.”
If you’re wondering how the director got such cooperation from the Cash daughters, you should probably know that Riddlehoover is married to Johnny and Vivian’s grandson, Dustin Tittle.
There is one anecdote, however, that some viewers who weren’t born or reared in the South might find disturbing.
Johnny Cash loved to have all sorts of exotic animals around the house while he and Vivian were married. And one day he brought home a goat. The girls loved that goat, but after a while, Johnny barbecued it. And that’s country.
“My Darling Vivian” was scheduled to screen at the 2020 South by Southwest Film Festival, though the festival was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s streaming online at various sites, including the Alamo Drafthouse site, www.drafthouse.com, starting Friday, June 19.
‘My Darling Vivian’
With: Rosanne Cash, Kathy Cash Tittle, Cindy Cash, Tara Cash Schwoebel
Running time: 90 minutes