Review: “My Darling Vivian”

The romance between Johnny Cash and June Carter is the stuff of legend; theirs is one of the most enduring and beloved modern love stories.  But not many people think to consider another part of the story: that of Vivian Liberto, Cash’s first wife and mother of their four daughters.  “My Darling Vivian,” a documentary directed by Matt Riddlehoover, uses archival footage and anecdotes from the four Cash daughters—Rosanne, Tara, Kathy, and Cindy—attempts to set the record straight, and finally give Vivian the spotlight.

Vivian met Cash in her hometown of San Antonio, Texas in 1951 and—after exchanging hundreds of letters with him during his deployment with the Air Force overseas—the couple married in 1954.  They moved to Memphis, had four daughters, and, as Cash’s music career began to take off, moved to California in 1961.  Vivian was frequently left to raise their four children on her own, as Cash spent more and more time on the road (and struggled with alcohol and drug addiction).  They divorced in 1966 after Cash began seeing June Carter, a fellow performer he was touring with.  He married her in 1968, and they stayed together until her death in 2003.

Vivian Liberto with husband Johnny Cash

When she was married to Cash, Vivian was often thrust into the public eye, and not always in the kindest way.  She was vilified in the press, for no other reason than that the public favored the star power of the Cash/Carter pairing.  She was swiftly forgotten about after they separated, only to be portrayed negatively (again) in the hit 2005 biopic “Walk the Line,” in which Vivian (played by Ginnifer Goodwin) plays a supporting role as a horrible woman trying to prevent her husband from being with the woman he really loves. 

The reality was far different, as indicated by the Cash sisters over the course of the film.  An interesting aspect of “My Darling Vivian” is that Rosanne, Tara, Kathy, and Cindy were all interviewed separately, and each of them remember certain details about their mother a little differently.  Occasionally, they outright contradict each other, but what emerges is an imperfect but sincere portrait of a woman who led a long and rich life, but has either been forgotten or remembered for the wrong reasons.  The documentary chronicles her life from childhood to her death in 2005 with both humor and heartbreaking poignancy.  Johnny Cash and June Carter may have been the love story the general public was always rooting for, but Johnny Cash and Vivian Liberto came first.

“My Darling Vivian” is streaming on Amazon Prime Video through May 6 as part of their spotlight on films that were scheduled to premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival. Runtime: 90 minutes. 4 out of 5 stars.

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