I finished rewrites for my part-time job and wanted to relax by watching something informative that's not getting lots of press. But should. I found the perfect thing. It's a 90 minute documentary, now available on Amazon Prime, called MY DARLING VIVIAN. It's about the first wife of famed singer Johnny Cash, the shy Catholic woman who bore him four daughters. Did you see the movie biopic about Johnny Cash and June Carter called WALK THE LINE? I paid to see that movie in theaters about three times. I loved the performances and I especially loved the script co-written by its director James Mangold. Seeing MY DARLING VIVIAN reminds you that movie biopics are entertainment with actors in them. They are not documentaries. In 2005's WALK THE LINE, Joaquin Phoenix played Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon won a Best Actress Oscar for playing June Carter Cash, Johnny's also famous second wife. Ginnifer Goodwin played Vivian Cash. Her Vivian was somewhat of a shrew. She was a controlling, annoying wife who seemed not to care at all about Johnny's ambitions and career. She wanted his constant, obedient attention and the financial benefits of his stardom for their house. This is not at all like the Vivian Cash you meet in this documentary. You'll understand why one daughter felt WALK THE LINE "did some damage" to her mother's memory and another daughter just refused to see it. Vivian Liberto was a very ladylike girl of Sicilian heritage in San Antonio, Texas. Her Catholic upbringing was strict, often leaving her to feel inferior. Then she met an 18 year old guy in the service and stationed in San Antonio. His name -- Johnny Cash. We see and hear excerpts from some of their many love letters. The daughters described their late mother as an "elegant" woman who "dressed beautifully" and was "exotic looking."
The four grown daughters are Cindy, Kathy, Tara and singer Rosanne Cash. Each daughter is interviewed separately. None of them is in conflict with the others in the interviews. If anything, the siblings complement each other. MY DARLING VIVIAN is their love letter to their mother who, as one says, "faded into negative obscurity" after their parents divorced and he married June Carter.
Johnny and Vivian Cash had a happy marriage. They married in 1954 in San Antonio and then moved to Memphis. In Memphis, they were so poor that she had a hard time purchasing groceries and had only two dresses. Come 1955, things changed. Johnny cut a record with Sam Phillips and his career was on the ascent. He and Vivian had a baby, but he had to get in his car and go on the road to other cities for music gigs. This was a new show biz practice -- going on the road. He was very concerned about leaving Vivian alone at home with a baby and she was concerned about being without Johnny. In 1956, his TV appearances really kicked up his stardom. By the way, his song "Walk the Line" was written as a love song to Vivian. In 1958, they moved to Encino, California and that's when things started to fray in the marriage. Soon Johnny was very busy and very famous and going on the road even more. Vivian had no friends, no help in the house and four girls all under the age of 6. And Vivian still had to get accustomed to Johnny's country ways. He loved to bring stray animals home. One day, he brought home a little animal his daughters immediately loved as a pet. Then, one day, Johnny invited friends over for a barbecue. Tex Ritter, Patsy Cline and June Carter attended. His daughters were shaken when they couldn't find their pet and then discovered what was on the barbecue grill.
In 1963, Johnny Cash appeared at the Hollywood Bowl. June Carter was also on the bill. The daughters report there was friction between June and their mother. In 1965, when Cash got busted for buying pills in El Paso, things really began to come undone in the home. Rosanne said that drugs changed her dad's personality. Also, his road tours grew longer and he sometimes wouldn't keep in touch with Vivian.
With this drama being enough for Vivian, more was on the way. She was a private, sweet person. When Johnny had a court date because of his El Paso arrest, she went to be by his side. She was photographed by newspaper reporters. She wore a dark fur coat and, with her dark Sicilian looks, it was erroneously reported that singer Johnny Cash had a Negro wife. The South went crazy. The KKK was after Johnny. A newspaper printed that she was "a Negress" and they had "four mongrelized children." Vivian got hate mail. She feared for the safety of their children. In 1966, Johnny Cash's representatives had to send out letters confirming that his wife was, indeed, Caucasian so he could get bookings in the South again.
The Johnny and Vivian Cash relationship could've inspired its own biopic.
If you classic film fans ever saw the 1936 biopic, THE GREAT ZIEGFELD, you know that Luise Rainer got one of her two Best Actress Oscars for playing the first wife of showman Florenz Ziegfeld. In the movie, Anna Held (Rainer) calls Flo to poignantly congratulate him on his second marriage. After the call, the maid asks why she divorced him if she still loved him. She tearfully replies that she thought filing for divorce would bring him back to her. The same thing applies to Vivian. She filed for divorce thinking it would make Johnny straighten up and come back to her. He didn't contest the divorce and later married June Carter. That marriage became like a mythic country music romance with June getting credit for helping him kick drugs and helping to raise their six or seven kids, four of which were Vivian's.
Vivian remarried. The girls tell us that she never stopped loving Johnny. Vivian and Johnny had a tender reunion after June passed in 2003. It's stunning how the country music scene back in the day erased Vivian from Johnny's history. This documentary is loaded with previously unseen family photos and home movies. We see that Vivian was truly elegant, beautifully dressed and exotic looking. This revealing and respectful biography was directed by Matt Riddlehoover. It's one of the best documentaries that I've seen in 2020. Here's a trailer.