Year Released: 2005
Directed by: James Mangold
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Patrick, Shelby Lynne, Ginnifer Goodwin
(PG-13, 136 min.)
"Success is full of promise till men get it. Then it is last year’s nest from which the birds have flown." Henry Ward Beecher
Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon light up the screen in this epic tale of one of America’s most authentic music legends. Experience the onstage joy and electricity of Cash’s music, and then lift the curtain for a dark glimpse into the pain and anger that fueled it.
His voice was not sweet, but the words that rumbled from his ravaged lips connected with us in an indefinable way. When he sang about Folsom Prison, we were certain he had lived within its stark walls. Long after our infatuation with sweet crooners had waned, and the mellow voices of Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis faded from the scene, the throaty anguish of the man in black became rooted in our consciousness, connected to every soul that had ever felt alone in an uncaring world.
And it was an uncaring world for young Johnny, the son an abusive alcoholic sharecropper (Robert Patrick) in Arkansas. After toiling in the stifling cotton fields by day, he and his older brother Jack eked out small pleasures by listening to the radio at night. One of Johnny’s favorites was the young June Carter, who at age ten was already a stage veteran.
In a scene that seems right out of Robert Frost’s tragic poem, “Out, Out” we see Jack struggling with a band saw in the promise of cash for splitting a large pile of wood. Johnny is bored and impatient and his brother tells him to go fishing while he finishes the task. His brother’s pale face and bloody clothes as he takes his last painful breaths will stay with Johnny throughout his life, as well as his father’s lashing question, “Where were you?” And Johnny, who looked up in awe to this sibling who memorized the Bible at night and was destined to become a preacher, would probably not disagree with the words he overhears his father say that night: “God took the wrong son.”
Maybe that’s why all his attempts to put his life together in the ordinary way are doomed to failure. Why, after a short stint in the Air Force, he marries a girl he hardly knows, one who is not much more convinced of Johnny’s worth than his dad had been. Although Vivian Cash dutifully bears him three daughters, she disparages his singing as a misbegotten distraction from his duty to provide for them, and then later when the money and success rain in, is equally resentful of the time on the road that is its source.
Somewhere on that road, in between the drinking, the casual infidelities, and that other bedmate, the little white pills that get him up for and down from a performance, he meets up with his boyhood idol, June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), now a part of his tour, along with Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, Roy Orbison, and Waylon Jennings. His first real encounter with her is during a backstage flurry where her dress somehow gets tangled in Johnny’s guitar strings. Finally she wrests herself away, and he is left with a gauzy pink swathe of her dress.
That about sums up their relationship for many years. They are inextricably tied to each other but the timing is all wrong. Both are married – in their first conversation in a coffee shop they trade the obligatory family pictures, almost as if they have to remind themselves that they are each off limits. But even when the marriages fade and are no longer a factor, other problems have cropped up to divide them. By now Johnny is deep in the devil’s grip of addition; he has shamed himself on stage and been to jail.
June is by his side, his ministering angel as he goes cold turkey on the pills. Her goodhearted parents help out by riding shotgun outside to give a cold greeting to Johnny’s supplier, who decides, after seeing the gun-toting seniors, to peddle his poison elsewhere. But even after Johnny is clean, June will not allow the sparks to fly except on the stage, where they electrify us with a dazzling rendition of “Jackson,” as well as “Ring of Fire” and many more. Even more electrifying is the fact that Joaquin and Reese do all their own singing throughout. And that Joaquin Phoenix, though so different in stature and build from Cash, has captured his singing postures and facial angles at the mike so completely.
He has Cash’s rebel arrogance when chided for his black attire. “It looks like you’re gong to a funeral,” his manger says. Phoenix puts on his dark glasses and replies in his rich baritone, “Well, maybe I am.”
But it is during the film’s final onstage screening that our hearts leap up and the tears sting. June has become provoked by Johnny’s unrelenting proposals and says she will not talk to him anymore except on stage. What is a guy to do then, but propose to her up there under the lights and in front of the world? She demurs at first and tells him to finish the song, but Johnny has at last found who he is and what he needs, and it is June.
When she finally says yes, we too are content, and know that for 36 more years we will be privileged to share the love and tremendous talent of this pair who were destined for each other until their deaths in 2003, just four months apart.
Johnny’s life begins to turn around after he buys a beautiful lake house outside of Nashville, Tennessee. He even persuades June and her parents to join him for Thanksgiving dinner, which he confesses he has no idea how to prepare. June obligingly brings a picnic basket filled with everything they will need.
I must assume that, good Southern girl that she is, June packs biscuits along with the Turkey and trimmings. I am including here a treasured recipe for fried biscuits I remember from my college days at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.
Just outside of town, in the rolling hills of Brown County, sits the picturesque artist colony of Nashville, Indiana. The Nashville Restaurant serves up such delicacies as apple butter and sassafras tea and the most mouth watering fried biscuits imaginable.
Given that June was working hard on “The Ring of Fire,” the song that traced her tempestuous relationship with Johnny at that time, I am dubbing them “Ring of Fire Biscuits.” After all they do have to fall into a burning ring of fire, the very hot grease that guarantees their crispy texture.
Ring of Fire Biscuits
O yes, and are they good! Serve these hot with some apple butter, to die for. They are great with fried chicken, corn, mashed spuds, pecan pie, and iced sassafrastea.
If you are ever near Nashville Ind. The Nashville House is a great place to get a meal. My wife and I will drive an hour and a half a couple of times a year just for these biscuits. Rick Clark
- 1 cup warm water (120 degree F to 130 degree F)
- 1 package active dry yeast
- 1/3 cup nonfat dry milk powder
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon cooking oil
- 2 to 2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
- Cooking oil or shortening for deep-fat frying
- Apple butter (optional)
- In a large bowl, combine warm water and yeast. Let stand for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the dry milk powder, sugar, and salt.
- Whisk the 1 tablespoon cooking oil into the yeast mixture. Add milk powder mixture and whisk until foamy and well combined. Using a wooden spoon, beat in the flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until dough is of good rolling consistency and not too sticky.
- Cover and let rest in a warm place for 10 minutes. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Lightly roll or pat dough until almost 1/4-inch thick. Cut the dough with a floured 2-1/2-inch biscuit cutter. Do not reroll.
- Meanwhile, fill a large, deep saucepan or deep-fat fryer with 1-1/2 to 2 inches of cooking oil or shortening. Heat oil to 365 degree F. (For best results, use a deep-fat frying thermometer. Be sure to place it so the bulb doesn't touch the pan.)
- Using a metal slotted spoon, carefully lower biscuits, 2 or 3 at a time, into deep, hot fat. Fry for 3 to 4 minutes or until double in volume and golden brown, turning once and spooning fat over squares as they fry. Remove with a slotted spoon. Drain on a wire rack set over paper towels. Keep biscuits warm in a 250 degree F oven while frying remaining biscuits. Repeat with remaining biscuits. Serve warm. Serve with apple butter, if you like. Makes about 12 biscuits.
Recipe Source: Better Homes and Gardens Recipe Center