Flashback: ‘Walk the Line’ Puts Johnny Cash’s Life on the Big Screen
Country music biopics are a rarity for Hollywood, and high-quality country biopics that are also a hit at the box office are “scarcer than hen’s teeth,” as June Carter Cash might have put it. The Eighties had Coal Miner’s Daughter, the life story of Loretta Lynn, with an Oscar-winning performance from Sissy Spacek. A full 25 years later, the turbulent early life of another iconic performer, Johnny Cash, was chronicled in the excellent Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Man in Black and Reese Witherspoon as Cash’s second wife, June, who shared the stage with him and, more significantly, inspired Cash to kick his addiction to prescription pills.
In addition to powerful performances from the two leads, who handled all their own singing in the film, Walk the Line also had musicians Shelby Lynne (playing Cash’s mother), Shooter Jennings (as his dad, Waylon Jennings) and Waylon Payne (as Jerry Lee Lewis). During its opening weekend in theaters, Walk the Line took in more than $22 million, grossing almost $120 million in the U.S. alone, but also playing all over the world, where Cash was – and remains – one of the most recognizable music performers of all time.
The undeniable chemistry of Phoenix and Witherspoon in the lead roles, first as fans of each other’s work, then as lovers, and finally as a married couple, carried the film, which also included several electric performances of the songs that made the Cashes a popular duo act.
Ten years ago today, on November 13th, 2005, Walk the Line, directed by James Mangold, premiered at New York’s Beacon Theatre, with a red-carpet event that saw the cast mingling with country acts, as well as film and TV stars. The country contingent included Shania Twain, Kris Kristofferson, Glen Campbell, Dierks Bentley, Sara Evans, Lee Ann Womack, Brooks & Dunn and LeAnn Rimes.
Walk the Line was an audience favorite and also a critical success, with both Phoenix and Witherspoon earning raves for their honest, multifaceted portrayals. Witherspoon also earned a Best Actress Oscar, while Phoenix took home a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. Not everyone who saw the film loved it, however. Kathy Cash, one of the singer’s four daughters with first wife Vivian Liberto Distin, was reported to have walked out of a private screening of the film several times, telling the Associated Press, “My mom was basically a nonentity in the entire film except for the mad little psycho who hated his career. That’s not true. She loved his career and was proud of him until he started taking drugs and stopped coming home.” John Carter Cash, Johnny and June’s only child together, who served as an executive producer of Walk the Line, defended it, saying, “The point of the film is my parents’ love affair.”
Sadly, the couple never saw the film. Johnny Cash died in September 2003, just four months after June passed away.