By Marie-Renee Goulet

I can’t imagine a more daunting task for an actor than to portray someone as well known as Jim Morrison. He is surrounded by myths he created himself; he lied about his life before joining The Doors declaring his parents dead (they weren’t) and two siblings nonexistent. Morrison acted a lot and took on various personas as soon as his career began. Not very many people were able to get close to him, and everyone has an opinion. When judging a performance, I try to imagine if anyone else could have played the role better. In Jim Morrison’s case, Val Kilmer is the only choice. He embodied him so completely. 

Val Kilmer’s career trajectory is confusing when one considers his talent. Kilmer was the youngest student ever admitted to the drama department at Juilliard at age 16. He made his feature debut in the comedy Top Secret!, where he showcased his singing and performing abilities. From the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, he turned in some of the most interesting performances as “Iceman” in Top Gun (1986) and gunslinger Doc Holliday in Tombstone (1993). He became a blockbuster star in Batman Forever (1995). He then broke his Batman contract for the sequel and instead signed on for a memorable supporting role in Heat (1995), along with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. There are a handful more good movies, and then things get murky, but that would be for an entirely different article.

Kilmer began preparing early to become Jim as he was lobbying director Oliver Stone for the part. As he details in his memoir “I’m your Huckleberry,” Kilmer used every one of his talents to embody this character. He had to play Morrison. Kilmer strongly believed the actor had to sing the songs live to have a cathartic experience that only players on stage can evoke. He rented a studio and worked on the songs for months and made a tape. Jim was a rare baritone tenor, so he trained to sing in that range. He then sent two tapes to Stone and the surviving members of The Doors. One was Kilmer singing, the other, Morrison. They couldn’t tell them apart. Once he was cast, he spent over 100 hours working in the studio with Paul Rothchild, who produced all but the last Doors’ album. Working with Kilmer in the studio, Rothchild sometimes would call Kilmer “Jim”, getting lost in the studio session. Kilmer even surprised himself by singing way beyond his talent or range. He learned 50 songs for the film; 15 are actually performed on screen. And there was always the possibility that if Kilmer didn’t sound exactly like Morrison, they would dub in Morrison’s voice. As it turned out, the live performances in the film are Kilmer. “Except for five lines,” Paul Rothchild notes. “One is a scream.” No one could scream like Jim. He won’t divulge the other four.

Jerry Hopkins, a journalist and Morrison biographer, met Kilmer, who showed up in character at a restaurant before filming. He said: I couldn’t get over how much Kilmer looked like Morrison. Now he was in character. Cowboy boots, hair the right length. He even blinked in precisely the same sleepy way that Morrison blinked and tilted his head shyly.” Aside from the evident physical transformation and singing abilities, Kilmer spent months studying Jim, his interviews and video to capture his mannerism, talking to his friends and reading girlfriends’ manuscripts about their time with him, and focusing on channeling the soul of the man.

Kilmer’s ability to sing live was a significant asset to the movie. There are several concert scenes where Kilmer, just like Jim, walks the edge of the stage, staring at the crowd, devilishly planning how he could rile them up, pushing the police line there to ensure his security. Listening to the Director’s commentary over the “Not to Touch the Earth” concert scene, Stone mentions that they shot over two nights in San Francisco, 2,000 locals showed up high on acid and ready to party. Having a front man capable of performing live and conveying emotions as opposed to lip-syncing makes it the closest as you can get to seeing The Doors performing live in the late 60’s. The Miami concert, which ended in Jim’s arrest for indecent exposure, also becomes an organic moment where Val is at his best. He pushes his voice until he is hoarse. This time, the performance includes Jim’s habit of confronting and provoking the crowd with lines such as: “You’re all a bunch of fucking slaves!” or “Adolph Hitler is alive and well and living in Miami”. Then would switch to call for love. The crowd became charged, women started stripping, and Stone admits having no control over the audience. A crowd is a monster of energy, and Kilmer successfully recreated the moment.

Even though the script doesn’t often allow Kilmer to play the more sensitive aspects of Jim’s personality, he captures the pain and loneliness of someone who needs more and more excess to feel anything at all. Someone who had no use for material possessions, who off stage was a sensitive poet and visionary. New acquaintances in his last days in Paris, who had no idea who he was, described him as quiet, meditative, almost invisible, and calm. Kilmer doesn’t miss the few opportunities he was given to convey Jim’s sensitive side. The hurt and betrayal he feels when he finds out his bandmates sold the rights to “Light my Fire” for a car commercial is palpable. In real life, Jim did not throw a TV at Ray Manzerek, but he did say he couldn’t trust them anymore. The three band members signed the contract with Buick while Morrison was out of town. Jim accused them of making a deal with the devil and said he would smash a Buick with a sledgehammer on stage at every concert if the deal went through. Buick scrapped the concept, and this incident irreparably damaged the Doors. Jim said, ‘I don’t have partners anymore; I have associates.”

Nowadays, music biopics such as Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) or Rocketman (2019) ensure an Oscar nomination if not a win and huge box office returns. In 1991, almost no one saw The Doors and there was no nomination for Kilmer, who absolutely deserved it. He was Jim Morrison.

Leave a comment