'My Darling Vivian': Film Review | SXSW 2020

Courtesy of the Estate of Vivian Distin
Vivian Liberto and Johnny Cash, 'My Darling Vivian'
Brings a woman erased into vivid focus.

Johnny Cash's four daughters set the record straight about their mother, Vivian Liberto, a spirited and resilient woman who has been all but written out of the Hollywood and Nashville versions of their famous father's life story.

[Note: In the wake of SXSW's cancellation this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select fest entries that elected to premiere digitally.]

From its forbidden beginnings to its decades-long staying power, onstage and off, the love story of Johnny Cash and June Carter has had a mythic hold on the pop-culture imagination. Walk the Line burnished that myth, with Reese Witherspoon's Oscar-winning portrayal of Carter as Cash's destiny — and with Vivian Liberto, his first wife and the mother of his four daughters, reduced to a small-minded blip on the radar screen, angry and petty and too pedestrian to understand the great artist.

That 2005 feature was made with the involvement of Cash and Carter's son. Now, Cash and Liberto's four daughters tell her story, and their family's, in an engaging and revelatory film that's also deeply affecting. A welcome corrective to the abridged and widely accepted narrative that dismisses Cash's first marriage as "troubled," My Darling Vivian relates a little-known love story, great in its own right — and immortalized in Cash's first hit, "I Walk the Line." And it offers a nuanced portrait, loving but not fawning, of a complex woman.

Director Matt Riddlehoover and his husband and producing partner, Dustin Tittle, enjoyed special access to a breathtaking selection of home movies, letters and other memorabilia; Tittle is Liberto and Cash's grandson. The helmer, who also edited, interweaves exceptionally well-chosen material from public archives as well. Seguing from comedy features to nonfiction with this project, he employs a straightforward chronological approach that suits the saga, opting for clarity over flair (notwithstanding the occasional whimsical addition of animated smoke to vintage photographs of cigarette-wielding people).

The sisters, who range in age from late 50s to mid-60s, are interviewed separately. They sometimes disagree over the details of family lore, but they're in sync when it comes to recalling Vivian's elegance and beauty, her aversion to the spotlight, and her remarkable strength in often trying circumstances. Vivian's voice is heard only once, at the very end of the film. And though it might leave you wishing for more, that final snippet works as a warm coda to a memory-piece quartet, skillfully orchestrated from the voices of siblings who are eager to tell an unsung woman's story. (Liberto died in 2005 at 71.)

All of them — singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, Kathy Cash Tittle, Cindy Cash and Tara Cash Schwoebel (who's credited as co-producer) — are compelling interviewees, their anecdotes sharp and tender. Firstborn Rosanne, who's also an author, brings a writerly precision to her reminiscences, and also a psychotherapy veteran's insights. Given the richness and wisdom of the women's recollections, the score might have been more judiciously used; its Satie-esque strains can provide the perfect punctuation, but at times it competes with the storytelling rather than enhancing it.

Liberto and Cash were married 13 years, and their relationship began with three years of long-distance courtship, an epistolary romance for the ages. After meeting at a San Antonio roller rink in 1951 — she was 17 and he was two years older, an Air Force cadet on his way to Germany — they wrote each other daily. A voluminous trove of letters attests to their long-distance devotion. (And a memento from their first encounter will appear, late in the film, with heart-stopping poignancy.)

Even though Vivian's strict Catholic father forbade her to visit Cash in Europe, they became engaged across the miles (he mailed the ring), and they married soon after his return to the States. His music career took off fast, and so did their family. Out on the West Coast, wannabe actor Cash fared no better as the lead of Door-to-Door Maniac than he did as a door-to-door salesman back in Tennessee. So he went back on tour, leaving Vivian with four children, one of them a newborn, in their newly built hilltop dream house in a remote area north of L.A., a rustic setting replete with rattlesnakes, bobcats and rabid fans.

Then came the drugs, the arrests, June Carter, and the racist hysteria that ensued after a news photo ignited rumors that Cash's Sicilian American wife was black. He made an unequivocal stand against the idiocy, but it was Vivian, fearing a KKK attack, who stood vigil in their isolated home. It's no wonder that her fondest memories involved their penniless years in Memphis, before her husband became ensconced in the culture of celebrity.

The film's most searing revelations involve the insults she was forced to endure, in her anonymity, after she and Cash were both remarried — specifically, the way Carter publicly claimed Vivian's four daughters as part of her brood, even though she wasn't raising them. The general image of Carter, promoted by Cash and embraced in Walk the Line, is that of a pistol with a touch of saint, the woman who saved Cash from his demons. But in this revisionist telling, she comes across as insensitive and self-aggrandizing — while Cash was seemingly oblivious to the hurtful effects of her maternal boasting.

In this context, excerpts from the all-star Nashville tribute to Cash not long after his death are painful to watch, and proof of the way a half-told story becomes the official one. Only Vivian's former son-in-law Rodney Crowell acknowledged her, and his remarks were cut from the broadcast version of the event.

Late in life, Vivian did tell her story, in I Walked the Line, a posthumously published memoir. It contains many of Cash's love letters — that early torrent of affection and confession being perhaps the ultimate truth about their relationship for her. Riddlehoover's documentary, which could inspire many viewers to seek out the book, makes vividly clear that Vivian wasn't the harridan portrayed onscreen in various tellings of the Johnny Cash biography, nor was she an angel. Through her daughters' memories, My Dear Vivian captures her contradictions, her suffering and joy, her vibrancy and resilience. Those memories are steeped in emotion, but also clarified through time and reflection. A woman of her generation, Vivian Liberto didn't analyze her life; she simply lived it.

Production companies: This Heart of Mine, Element Twenty Two
Director: Matt Riddlehoover
Producers: Dustin Tittle, Matt Riddlehoover
Director of photography: Josh Moody
Editor: Matt Riddlehoover
Composer: Ian A. Hughes
Sales: The Film Collaborative

90 minutes