In the mythologized version of the Johnny Cash story, his wife and collaborator, June Carter, is portrayed as the saintly woman who rescued the country singer from the dark side of fame. That story was immortalized in the 2005 film “Walk the Line,” for which Reese Witherspoon won the Oscar for best actress. Cash’s first wife, Vivian Liberto (played in that film by Ginnifer Goodwin), on the other hand, was made to look like a petty shrew on the sidelines when really she was the inspiration for the song “I Walk the Line.”
The documentary “My Darling Vivian” attempts to salvage the reputation of a woman believed to be misconstrued and shoved into obscurity. Directed by Matt Riddlehoover and produced by his husband, Dustin Tittle (a grandson of Cash and Liberto’s), this may be the most comprehensive film portrait of Liberto yet, but the absence of her own voice is still achingly felt. (She died in 2005.)
Supported by abundant archival footage, Liberto and Cash’s four daughters — Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara — make revisionist cases for their mother in separate talking-head interviews. They recall the increasingly longer stretches of their father being away. Alone, their mother warded off everything from rattlesnakes on their property to threats from the Ku Klux Klan, who thought that Liberto, an Italian-American born in Texas, was Black.
“My Darling Vivian” (its title is taken from Cash’s letters to Liberto) also chips away at Carter’s public persona; the daughters say she took credit for raising them. Such revelations are illuminating, but too much of the film harps on the same points about how Liberto was underappreciated. The film, ultimately, still lacks Liberto’s own sense of agency.
My Darling Vivian
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. Watch on virtual cinemas.