My Darling Vivian


He walked the line for her.

(2020) Music Documentary (The Film Collaborative) Rosanne Cash, Tara Cash Schwoebel, Cindy Cash, Kathy Cash Tittle, Vivian Liberto, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash. Directed by Matt Riddlehoover

We tend to mythologize our biggest stars. Their lives take on a quality that is spun by the inertia of tabloids and spin control. Often we get very one-sided portrayals of who they were and how they came to be.

Take Johnny Cash, for example. Most of us know him through his timeless music, country songs that have helped define American music over the years. Most of us know his story through the biofilm Walk the Line which justly won an Oscar for Reese Witherspoon. She played June Carter, who is depicted in the film as being the love of his life, the savior of him as he overcame his addictions. It is an American fairy tale romance.

Johnny was married before he met June, though, to a Sicilian-American woman named Vivian Liberto, whom he met in her hometown of San Antonio when she was 17 and he was 19. He was in the Air Force at the time and was soon after shipped off to Germany. That didn’t dim his ardor (or hers) any as he wrote more than a thousand letters, and sent her an engagement ring through the mail. Shortly after he came home, the two were married.

His career as a door-to-door salesman was unsuccessful and he decided to pursue a career in music. The couple moved to Memphis where they had no money and lived in a rundown apartment. However, he managed to get himself signed to Sun Records at a time where Sun was rewriting American popular music, with a line-up that included Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Cash found meteoric success and one of his first hit songs was “I Walk the Line,” written for Vivian.

Cash moved the family to pursue an acting career (as Elvis had before him) and eventually built a hilltop home in rural Casitas Springs north of L.A. The acting career fizzled, but Cash continued to be a hot commodity on the Billboard charts. He toured relentlessly, leaving Vivian in the house to take care of four daughters, all under six years old and one of them an infant.

On the road, Cash became hooked on amphetamines. His absences grew longer and longer and when he returned home, he was a changed man. Even his daughters noticed it. Vivian felt abandoned and the fights with her husband grew more vicious. Eventually, the couple divorced in 1966 and Cash took up with Carter, with whom he had been having an affair.

Vivian actually remarried before Cash did, to an ex-policeman. She wanted a man around because she didn’t feel safe. When Cash had been arrested in El Paso for bringing in pills from Mexico, she had gone there to bail him out. A newspaper picture captured her dark Sicilian complexion and full lips and many mistakenly thought she was an African-American. The backlash, particularly in the South, was enormous as interracial marriages were taboo in those days. She received death threats and in her isolated home stood vigil night after night, fully expecting an army of Klansmen to come to her door and murder her daughters.

But the mythology began to take hold as the years went by. Vivian had always been intensely private and rarely made public appearances while she was married to the country star. She began to be relegated to a role as a footnote in his career, so much so that when he died and a large tribute concert was thrown, she wasn’t mentioned except by former son-in-law Rodney Crowell and even that was edited out of the broadcast. Particularly galling was that Carter often took credit for raising the four daughters, when in fact she only saw them when they were visiting their dad.

Vivian didn’t live to see Walk the Line but her daughters did and were distressed, to put it mildly, to see her depicted as a whining, complaining lunatic who not only didn’t support her husband but drove him to drug use. It is all the more ironic since the title song was written for Vivian and not, as many have supposed, for June.

Most of this is told through the testimony of the four daughters which skews the narrative somewhat, but considering how short a shrift Vivian has gotten from history, is understandable. Even so, Vivian is not portrayed as a saint here – she had a temper and she could be cruel upon occasion. However, the girls certainly admire their mother and their love is plain throughout their interviews. We don’t hear much from outside the family other than through clips of archived interviews. We don’t even hear Vivian’s voice until near the end of the film.

Other than the interviews with the girls, the story is mostly told through archival footage, still photographs and home movies. Some of the home movies are fascinating as they usually are when it comes to catching people in the act of being themselves. We can see that Vivian had an exotic beauty, a cross between Sophia Loren and Jackie Kennedy, only with olive skin.

But her voice is plain to hear in other ways. Through the letters, many of which she published in an autobiography which didn’t sell very well (nobody likes to have their myths questioned), it is clear that Cash was deeply in love with her. It is also interesting to hear a recorded letter that he sent her, playing a song he wrote for her. She and Cash remained friends, particularly after Carter passed away, and near the end of his life, visited with the girls (Rosanne, who was on tour with her own band, was unable to attend).

This is a very different look at the life of a legend. While her life had its share of pain, there was an awful lot of love. The score of Ian A. Hughes is almost dirge-like and gives the documentary a funereal air it didn’t really need. This is obviously a labor of love (the producer is Vivian’s grandson and the director her grandson’s husband) and it’s a love that should be celebrated.

The film was set to premiere at South by Southwest in March until the festival was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak. It is part of a selection of 35 films (both features and shorts) from the Festival that have been made available for viewing on Amazon Prime. Best of all, you don’t need a Prime account to watch; if you have a free Amazon account, you can see it for free for a limited time.

REASONS TO SEE: Some interesting material – and heartbreaking moments. A different side of the Johnny Cash story.
REASONS TO AVOID: The soundtrack is almost dirge-like
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liberto met Cash at a roller skating rink in San Antonio while Cash was in the Air Force and based at nearby Brooks Air Base.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 80/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walk the Line
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
South Mountain

Top Five


Chris Rock, standin' around.

Chris Rock, standin’ around.

(2014) Dramedy (Paramount) Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, J.B. Smoove, Romany Malco, Hayley Marie Norman, Anders Holm, Cedric the Entertainer, Kevin Hart, Karlie Redd, Ben Vereen, Sherri Shepard, Annaleigh Ashford, Jay Pharaoh, Tracy Morgan, Hassan Johnson, Leslie Jones, Luis Guzman, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Whoopi Goldberg. Directed by Chris Rock

Fame is something we all kind of wish we had deep down. We want all the perks – admiration, adulation and wealth to name a few. The reality of fame though is far different than our perception of it, particularly among celebrities in the popular arts. The pressure to produce can be absolutely crushing and the availability of alcohol and drugs – and the encouragement to use them irresponsibly – also can add to a celebrity’s woes.

Andre Allen (Rock) is best-known as a stand-up comedian, considered by many to be one of the funniest men in America. His film career has spawned a lucrative franchise of a crime fighter in a bear suit. Now he’s trying to get up after hitting rock bottom after having gone through rehab and recovery. Sober a year and a half, he’s getting ready to marry Erica Long (Union), a reality TV star, on a Bravo reality series. His new movie, Uprizing about the Haitian slave rebellion is about to come out, and through it he hopes to reinvent himself as a serious Actor. Note the capital.

But the film is going to bomb. Everyone knows it except for Andre. His agent (Hart) has arranged for New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Dawson) to follow Andre around for a day, which he’s not very pleased about. The Times’ film critic has repeatedly excoriated his performances, comparing them to “crimes against humanity.” However he needs the publicity for the movie so he grudgingly goes along with it.

In the course of the night she will witness him reconnect with old friends and family, undergo interviews of often the most insensitive and inert kind, endure heartbreak and disappointment and come out on the other side – maybe with a clear understanding of who he is, maybe not.

I have always blown hot and cold when it comes to Chris Rock. His genius is plain to see but it hasn’t always been showcased properly in movies. His skills are in being Chris Rock, to present his views through his experiences and make them funny and relatable. He is not really a character actor; he never did the SNL thing of developing characters with their own distinct personalities. While that may limit one on the stand-up stage, it is excellent preparation for a motion picture career and has stood many alumni of the show well.

Rock stands out here. He is cocky and vulnerable, arrogant and humble, forceful and lost. I can’t think of many movie characters with as many contradictions as Andre Allen – and yes, having contradictions in a character is a good thing. We get to see facets of Rock that he usually doesn’t reveal. I don’t know that Rock is particularly looking to reinvent himself but he comes close here.

The support crew is pretty outstanding as well, a who’s who of modern American stand-up as well as some pretty fine actors in their own right. Dawson is one of those ladies who has a devastating smile, one that can melt solid steel and turn a glacier into a puddle in just about five seconds flat and yet it is rare that a director has really utilized it to good effect. Rock does and when he is the focus of that smile, every man in the audience feels it. This is one of her best roles ever.

Union has the thankless job of playing the fame-addicted reality TV star with a huge heaping helping of control freak factored in. She doesn’t have very many scenes with Rock (most of their interaction is over the phone) and the part isn’t terribly sympathetic but she still manages to make it real. Although we still don’t like her character.

Most of the cameos are just that but Last Comic Standing host J.B. Smoove gets himself a meaty part as Andre’s boyhood chum and bodyguard/chauffeur/right-hand man and runs with it. He reminds me a little bit of Arsenio Hall in Coming to America. In any case, the part works.

The movie itself is a bit of a mixed back. There were times I was drawn in and felt like a fly on the wall in someone’s life, which is when the movie works best. There were also some times when it felt like I was watching something staged, like the reality show within the movie. That’s when the movie works least.

This probably won’t be contending for my year-end top ten list but it should likely make the Honorable Mention. It’s pretty dang good but not great. There’s a lot here that works, like when Andre is visiting with folks from his past in the old New York neighborhood. When the movie is pouring it on about the movie star, then it felt a little bit forced. I would have liked to have seen more of the New York Chris Rock than the Hollywood Chris Rock. So, I suspect, would a lot of you.

REASONS TO GO: Has moments where it really fires on all cylinders. Rock is always a fascinating study.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses focus occasionally and overdoes it.
FAMILY VALUES: Nudity and strong sexual content, plenty of adult language, crude humor and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rock wrote the screenplay in his trailer while filming Grown-Ups 2 so at least something good came out of that movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stardust Memories
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Holly and the Quill begins!