Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun May 03, 2020 11:05 pm 
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Vivian and Johnny's daughters tell her forgotten story

It's a pretty good bet that Vivian Liberto and Johnny Cash were the loves of each other's lives, even though after their 12-year marriage both wound up married to other people for much longer - Vivian to Dick Distin for 37 years, Johnny to June Carter for 35. This film is a tribute to Vivian and a righting of wrongs. She has been forgotten and written out of the picture, Cash's second wife, singer June Carter, kept claiming, in effect, that his four daughters with Vivian were hers, even though she had nothing to do with raising them. Vivian did it all, and loved Johnny every day till she died. The story is told exclusively by Vivian and Johnny's four daughters, Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara, who were all born close together.

The film explains Vivian's background. She is of Sicilian ancestry and was brought up in a strict Catholic family. Her mother was alcoholic and she used to cover for her. She was 16 and Johnny Cash 18 when they met in 1950 at a roller skating rink. He fell for her immediately and as the story goes, deliberately bumped into her and knocked her down to get acquainted. He was soon in the Air Force sent to Germany for three years. During that time they exchanged "thousands" of letters, which she saved later. They married in 1954 soon after he came home and moved to Memphis with no money. He joined up with Marshall Grant, they learned the guitar, and he persuaded Sam Phillips to record him one month after Rosanne was born. "I Walk the Line" - composed for Vivian - was his first hit. He soon became a country music star, and later of course a genre-crossing legend.

The films tells the story of their life together - and, largely, apart. In the early years it was all love. One daughter says she thought her mother's name was "Honey" and "Baby" was her nickname, because Johnny called her only those names. When she heard her mother called "Vivian" it sounded strange.

Soon he was a star, and after living in Johnnie Carson's former house in Encino, he built a big house on top of a hill in remote Casitas Springs, California, with rattlesnakes and tarantulas. He brought home odd animals all the time, including a monkey, a parrot, and an Irish Setter that she had to take care of with the growing brood while he was away on tour much of the time. Somehow, Rosanne says, Vivian "metabolized that [fame] as humiliation." A very private person, though active and sociable, she was not comfortable with notoriety.

One day he came home on drugs, and he was a different person. And his drug of choice of course was amphetamines, combined with downers to balance them. He started not coming home when he said he would. They began to fight whenever he was there. When Vivian saw Johnny with June Carter at a big show, she realized what was going on, why he was away longer and wouldn't say "I love you" on the telephone. He missed the kid's birthdays, their wedding anniversary, then Christmas.

The film becomes the story of Vivian's unvoiced complaints. There is plenty of footage of these early years, and early stills. (The film uses a new device to me - adding moving cigarette smoke to a still black and white photo. It's weird.) There is some use of stock footage to illustrate things, but much of the focus is on the sisters. When they speak, we see them. Rosanne does more of the talking and is a bit more skeptical about unsubstantiated anecdotes.

When Kathy got seriously ill with a mysterious bacterial infection, that brought Johnny home. But unlike today, where you've got people's cell phone number, it was often hard for Vivian to track her husband down when he was on the road.

Around 1964 Johnny was away for an extended period and they think he was hanging out with Bob Dylan "in SoHo or the Village" (maybe, but of course they collaborated on "Nashville Skyline" in 1969).

A shocking event was that when Vivian joined Johnny after his arrest in El Paso in 1965 for trying to import amphetamines and Equanil over the border from Mexico and they were photographed and it went in all the papers, Vivian, who had a dark, Sicilian complexion, looked almost like a black person. The rumor went out that Johnny Cash was in a biracial marriage and all his performance dates in the racist 1960's South were cancelled. They had to get a raft of affidavits and letters certifying that Vivian was white before Johnny could get booked in the South again.

"Another, lasting shock for Vivian was learning that in public appearances, when June Carter and Johnny were together, and the press was more happy with this new "tabloid romance," June made it sound as if she was raising the girls, as well as the three children she had with him. It was a lie. June Carter became known as the one who saved Johnny Cash from drugs. Vivian was demonized falsely, the sisters say, and later forgotten. Vivian did all the work of raising her four daughters.

Things were going so badly that Vivian took out papers to divorce Johnny "to shock him" but "he let it go through. Johnny went to Tennessee and lived with Waylon Jennings, who they say had "a thousand-dollar-a-day cocaine habit," while he was addicted to amphetamines.

Rosanne says "not all divorces are bad." Divorced, Vivian nonetheless lived well. She finally moved to a better house in Ventura, and in a couple of years married a local cop, Dick Distin, who went through several other jobs and then settled into just being supported. They remained together for the rest of her life, 37 years, as Johnny remained with June Carter. They remained connected, and on friendly terms, even to the end. Johnny and Vivian had a meeting with three of the four sisters there when he was in his last days, a time that meant a lot to her, because, the sisters say, she never stopped loving him, and Dick knew that.

She was social, and artistic, though not many details are given of her art but a quick shot of a flower painting. This isn't a film abut Johnny Cash's career; it's only of peripheral interest - even though two of the sisters, Rosanne and Cindy, became singer-songwriters themselves.
Rosanne is shown in a TV appearance with Johnny, but only the introduction is shown. We also see the gracefully aging Vivian and hear what a great grandmother she was. Not always so supportive to the daughters, since when Rosanne appeared on TV and asked her mother for reaction, all she got was "I did not know that person."

Vivian wrote a memoir called I Walked the Line. The book was little read. This film may be more seen. Even when Johnny Cash died, two years before Vivian, she was was overlooked, they say, at his memorial. She had to sit there, attending it, and see June lionized and her unmentioned. A very interesting picture of how fame can mess up lives. But Vivian was a tough person, a survivor. This is an effort to set the record straight.

My Darling Vivian, 90 mins., was to have debuted at the 2020 SXSW festival, cancelled due to the pandemic. It was screened for this review when offered for a time free to Amazon Prime subscribers. Metascore 80%.

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