By John H. Foote
(****) Streaming on Apple
Val might be the most compelling documentary I have ever experienced. The film deals with Val Kilmer’s life, moving from his time at the Juilliard School, where he was accepted as the youngest student in their history, through his stage career into movies, his marriage and subsequent divorce to actress Joanne Whalley, and finally and most incredibly, his fight with throat cancer which has left him without a voice. Speaking in a guttural sounding series of croaks that form words, the film explores what it has been to be Kilmer and what this last fight has done to the actor.
Once among the most beautiful men working in movies, age and cancer have ravaged his good looks, leaving him ruddy, bloated and unrecognizable from his heyday in the 90s. Kilmer’s son Jack narrates the film, with a voice hauntingly similar to his father’s, before he lost it. He speaks the words Kilmer himself wrote for the film, bringing a biting honesty and truth to the film.
Often reported to be a difficult actor, one who wasted time on set arguing with the directors, Kilmer was a perfectionist and, like other great artists with high standards, he was branded “difficult”. Among the greatest with this brand have been Charles Chaplin, Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, and Sean Penn, all recognized as geniuses of their craft. I am not sure Kilmer was in their league as an actor, but I think he could have been had he made better choices.
When video cameras became the rage in the 80s, Kilmer bought one and over the next near 40 years, documented his life, shooting miles of footage backstage at plays, on film sets, in his home, with his children, and showing what his life is like now. Kilmer talks about the shame of having to go from places like Comic-Con to make appearances and sign autographs of himself as Batman in Batman Forever (1995) or show up in Texas at a screening of Tombstone (1994), signing posters and photos of himself as Doc Holliday. His fortune is gone, yet he maintains a home in Malibu that he shares with his children, each of whom had a hand in getting this film made.
Known for three truly great performances, there is no question he is a fine actor: Top Gun (1986), The Doors (1991) and Tombstone (1993). Most of us were introduced to him as Iceman, a top-notch jet pilot in Top Gun (1986), which was an unexpected blockbuster thrusting him and Tom Cruise into immediate stardom. Kilmer did not like the film initially. He considered it a task, not a real piece of acting. But he warmed to the director, Tony Scott, and enjoyed working with Tom Cruise and the rest of the cast. The result was a wildly entertaining film, that feels a little like a music video. Slick production values, edits to the beat of the bass drum or the song on the score, fast cuts and often wet or dark cinematography. The film was a triumph of movie making for its time.
Though he personally delivered his audition tapes for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), he was not among the actors selected for the film. I personally think he would have soared working with Kubrick. His charisma shone through in Ron Howard’s Willow (1988), but Kilmer was not proud of it nor did he enjoy making it, other than he got to work with his future wife, Whalley.
When he heard Oliver Stone was making a film about the 60s rock band The Doors, and specifically Jim Morrison, he knew he had to play the part. He made audition tapes of himself singing, playing the guitar, which he had learned to do for another film, and Stone was blown away. His preparation to play Jim Morrison in The Doors was near obsessive, driving his new wife, Whalley mad. Kilmer watched every piece of footage he could find of Morrison and captured his movements, lowered his voice to match Morrison’s. The other members of The Doors reported that they thought they were listening to Morrison himself. He even took to wearing the infamous leather pants Morrison wore for more than a year. He became Jim Morrison because he believed he was Jim Morrison and. His performance was mesmerizing and in a fair world would have seen him nominated for an Academy Award. But again, Kilmer might have hurt his chances by refusing to campaign to get out there and interview on talk shows to remind Academy voters of his superb performance. Once again that difficult label was attached to him, but his stock as an actor continued to rise.
As Doc Holliday, the well-educated gunslinger in the old west, dying of tuberculosis in the western Tombstone (1993), he gave what might be his crowning performance as an actor. Kilmer dug into to the research to find Holliday and delivered a stunning supporting performance as the quick-draw gun slinging man who fought crime with Wyatt Earp in old lawless Tombstone. With the directors struggling to find the film, actor Kurt Russell quietly took over and, though uncredited, directed the film. Kilmer has stated that Russell was the reason Tombstone came together as a movie, the heart and soul of the picture. As the deadly Holliday, Kilmer was both comic relief and the hero of the film, finally taking on the vicious Johnny Ringo, announcing his presence with “I’m your Huckleberry”. Watching the film today, I remain stunned that Kilmer was not a supporting actor nominee.
He gave other fine performances but those three are the best of his career. There was much to like in his work in Heat (1995), a sprawling crime film directed by Michael Mann starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, with Kilmer superb in a supporting role. By now he had met his idol Marlon Brando and become friends with the legendary actor, often visiting Brando at his home. They had the chance to work together on The lsland of Dr. Moreau (1995) where Kilmer watched the director, old-school John Frankenheimer, refuse to take suggestions from his actor, including Brando. We see and hear Kilmer arguing with the director on set, and understand his frustrations with him, but nothing could help the film, it was doomed from the beginning by the silly script.
After this film, Kilmer’s stock dropped in Hollywood and he was cast in supporting roles in major films and some leads in independent films. In 2014, while portraying Mark Twain onstage with plans for a film version, he lost his voice and his throat began bleeding profusely. He was rushed to the hospital, and it was discovered the actor had throat cancer, aggressive, requiring immediate surgery. The results left him with this deep, guttural voice he has now, and it is clear his career is over.
By the end of the documentary, Kilmer has attended his beloved mother’s funeral and is in touch with his own spirituality. He spends his days painting, has established an artist colony, and takes long walks outside on the beach of Malibu. His children are his constant companions.
I have never been a huge Val Kilmer fan though I did admire greatly his performances in The Doors and Tombstone, and thought he was an adequate Caped Crusader in Batman Forever, though he did not stand a chance against Jim Carrey’s astounding Riddler (who would?).
Count me a fan of the man, whose raw courage permitted him to make a film about a man who might become a better man as he faces death. I watched my beautiful wife die of brain cancer, different than Kilmer’s, but still cancer, and let me tell you, cancer is horrifying. Sometimes worse are the drugs used to fight it.
The brutal honesty with which he faces his life is inspiring, Kilmer has ennobled himself with this work and cinema.
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.