My Darling Vivian

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

My Darling Vivian
"There's a sense of tragedy underlying all this but it doesn't overwhelm the narrative, and we get a distinct sense of who Vivian was as a person."

She was the inspiration for I Walk The Line, the woman with whom he exchanged literally hundreds of letters whilst he was serving in the army and a woman to whom he swore he would always be true. She was the mother of his four daughters and according to them she loved him till the end of her days, but if you've only paid casual attention to Johnny Cash's story, you'd be forgiven for missing the fact of her existence altogether. Somehow labelled as the other Woman despite the fact that she was part of his life for over a decade before he became involved with June Carter, Vivian Liberto has a relentlessly rough ride from press and biographers alike. Though her attempt to tell her side of the story in a book got very little traction, this film attempts to give her a posthumous voice.

Vivian was the very picture of a woman out of her depth. Just 17 when she met the charismatic musician, she was swept off her feet and, despite the time they were forced to spend apart whilst he served overseas, moved swiftly into marriage and motherhood. Four girls followed, the last birth so painful that she said she would never do it again. As she tried to raise them, she had to contend with the constant presence of reporters intruding on her privacy, crowds of fans outside her house, and even rattlesnakes. And that was before Johnny met drugs. "One day he came home and he wasn't my dad any more," Rosanne recalls.

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With all four daughters contributing their thoughts, this is a powerful story of familial love and dysfunction. Vivian, too, had problems with drugs, trying to medicate away her anguish, and Rosanne recalls he her younger sisters started calling her Little Mom as she stepped into the gap. The women's testimony is backed up with extensive family photographs, film and newspaper clippings from the time, as well as select pieces of Vivian and Johnny's extensive correspondence. Her instinct to hold onto everything she could of him has left an abundance of materials for historians, making it all the more peculiar that so little attention has been paid to her story in the past.

Not everybody is cut out for the limelight and Vivian certainly wasn't, wilting under the public gaze. She seemed to look the part, her long, luxuriant black hair perfect for the fashions of the time, but even that failed after after claims that she was secretly African American saw her family targeted with death threats by racists. Director Matt Riddlehoover does a good job of communicating the terror that this caused her. As one would expect, the film concentrates primarily on her time with Johnny, where most material is available, but it also looks at her later life, her subsequent marriage, her devotion to the Catholic Church and to her local community, and her efforts to rebuild her reputation.

There's a sense of tragedy underlying all this but it doesn't overwhelm the narrative, and we get a distinct sense of who Vivian was as a person. To her daughters, this is all the more important because of the film Walk The Line, which they feel misrepresented her badly. Here, Johnny drifts in and out. There's enough focus on his story, with enough rare details, to intrigue his fans; but it's when his dazzling presence is removed that we can see Vivian shine.

Reviewed on: 08 Dec 2020
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The story of Vivian Liberto, Johnny Cash's first wife and the mother of his four daughters.

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