By John H. Foote
Val Kilmer has given one, perhaps two extraordinary performances in a career spanning nearly 40 years.
In the first he was astonishing as Jim Morrison for Oliver Stone in the film The Doors (1991) which was more a biography of Morrison than it was about the band though, in reflection, what were The Doors without Morrison? Kilmer spent months researching the character, watching old concert tapes of the singer, listening to countless interviews, working with a voice coach that helped him alter his voice so he could do his own singing. When he was ready to show off the singing voice, he played the band members and Oliver Stone two tapes, one of Morrison and one of himself singing, and they could not tell the difference. That must have been a magnificent moment of validation for the actor. He stalked the film like a panther, capturing Morrison’s overt sexuality, his massive ego, and yes, that incredible voice. It might be the finest performance of a rock star ever put on film.
The second time he was brilliant was as Doc Holliday in the action western Tombstone (1993), said to be directed by one man but in fact directed and edited by star Kurt Russell, who became one of Kilmer’s closest friends, a man he admires very much. Portraying the deadly gunfighter racked with tuberculosis, Kilmer was both funny, ironic and ultimately dangerous, his final gunfight with the equally dangerous Johnny Ringo kicked off with that infamous line, “I’m your Huckleberry”, before they face off, and Holliday blasts a bullet into Ringo’s forehead, and holsters his gun before Ringo can even draw.
The rest of his career has been a series of misfires, and sometimes very interesting performances in movies that more often than not failed. Top Gun (1986) remains his greatest success and he will be in the sequel coming this Christmas, Top Gun: Maverick, though emphasis will likely be on Tom Cruise, star of the film. When Kilmer expressed interested in being in the film, Cruise was delighted, ordering rewrites to include Kilmer and the confrontational relationship between he and the character Iceman (Kilmer) to continue.
More often than not his off screen behaviour has been the news surrounding Kilmer, dubbed difficult by more than one filmmaker.
Reading his new book, he thinks of himself as anything but difficult, but rather an educated, well-read actor who might have disagreements with the director and writer about the portrayal of the character. Nothing wrong with that, happens all the time. But often it is in the presentation of the disagreement, and Kilmer is said to be cold and bull headed, even arrogant to the point of obnoxious. Maybe so, but Hollywood continued to keep him employed so it could not have been that bad.
Rumours from the set of John Frankenheimer’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) stated he and Marlon Brando clashed, which according to Kilmer, could not have been further from the truth. They had long been friends, and Kilmer like most young actors stood in awe of Brando, recognizing him to be a genius. When Frankenheimer refused to allow Brando to improvise, Kilmer went to him and implored him to allow it, saying Brando was a genius and the improv work would be far better than anything written. Frankenheimer refused and Brando and Kilmer did their jobs, nothing more because neither felt appreciated. Most directors, the great directors allow their actors freedom, because it is eventually them up on the screen and if you do not allow them to create, then why have you hired them?
The book “Val Kilmer – I’m Your Huckleberry” is entertaining and a very quick read. I tore through the 300 pages in a day and a half, reading every word, and enjoyed what I read. More discussion of his roles might have been warranted, though he is generous in his praise of the actors and directors he enjoyed working with, Robert Downey Jr. and Brando at the top of his list.
His friendship with Cher began as a love affair, a torrid older woman-younger man connection that has spanned 30 years and remains one of the most important relationships in his life. Cher cared for the actor when he was diagnosed with potentially deadly throat cancer, and he states that a truer friend he has never had.
Kilmer is very candid about the breakdown of his marriage, his friendships and the state of Hollywood, honest and open about everything.
I guess I wanted more. More about his films, more about everything. Mostly more about Kilmer. What makes him tick? I still have no idea.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.