A Portrait of the Val as a Young Kilmer

Sourced from decades of the Hollywood star’s private home videos, the new documentary Val depicts the rise and fall of infamously “difficult” actor Val Kilmer with charm and intimacy — even if it’s a self-serving portrait.

Val Kilmer in New York, 2019. (EuropaNewswire / Gado / Getty Images)

The documentary Val currently playing on Amazon Prime is about actor Val Kilmer, whose career heyday was in the 1980s and ’90s with films like Top Gun (1986), The Doors (1991), Tombstone (1993), Batman Forever (1995), and Heat (1995). Throughout his life, Kilmer obsessively shot video footage of everything from his privileged childhood in the Central Valley of California, from acting classes at Juilliard to the sudden Hollywood stardom that quickly dominated much of his life. Throughout it all, he sees himself as an artist frustrated by the commercial demands of Hollywood filmmaking, who nevertheless fought the good fight.

Much of the emotional impact of the documentary involves what’s become of Kilmer today, who at a relatively young age — he’s sixty-one — relies on a voice box to speak after a battle with throat cancer. We’re shown that, having lost the fortune he made in his years of stardom, he sustains himself through paid appearances at conventions, where he spends hours signing Top Gun posters with the line he spoke as his macho pilot character Iceman, “You can be my wingman anytime.” He also does special public events such as nostalgic screenings of the film Tombstone. He acknowledges that trading on past film roles in this way is regarded as a humiliating experience for an actor, and adds that he finds a kind of salvation in the love of his fans.

The unsparing, confessional quality of a some of this material does a lot to disguise what doesn’t get examined in this film. Kilmer has a very definite narrative of his own life that directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo seem willing to adhere to without interrogation — the narrative of the suffering artist whose head is bloody but unbowed. The most obvious omission is Kilmer’s own reputation for being so extraordinarily difficult to work with that he torpedoed his own film career years before his illness robbed him of his voice.

It’s not until very late in the film that there’s a sudden flurry of footage refuting that claim, almost a rapid-fire montage of interviews with people from Kilmer’s life praising his misunderstood artistic integrity. It ends with Robert Downey Jr asserting about Kilmer’s “difficult” reputation, “He’s just not.

It’s hard to square this with widespread reports of moody, egotistical brat behavior that peaked with the famously disastrous production of The Island of Dr Moreau (1996). Even in a film in which morbidly obese star Marlon Brando could hardly be persuaded to come to the set at all — and when he did was determined to wear clown-white makeup, a white muumuu, and in certain scenes an ice bucket on his head — Kilmer was judged to be an equal or greater problem:

It was costar Val Kilmer who proved to be [director Richard] Stanley’s real downfall. Living up to his hot-headed reputation at the time, the reigning Batman had already caused trouble by negotiating a 40 percent decrease in his work schedule. Kilmer had been hired over Stanley’s first choice, Bruce Willis, to play shipwrecked UN agent Douglas, but this decrease forced the director to recast Kilmer in a less prominent role, as the sinister vet, Montgomery.

That still didn’t appease Kilmer, who arrived two days later for his first scene, refused to speak Ron Hutchinson and Stanley’s dialogue, and generally is reported to have acted like a grade-A jackass.

Rather brutally, Stanley’s inability to placate Kilmer was apparently integral to his firing by fax just three days into filming. Despite having significantly more experience than Stanley, replacement director John Frankenheimer (Known for The Manchurian Candidate and Birdman of Alcatraz) didn’t have much more luck.

“Even if I was directing a film called The Life of Val Kilmer, I wouldn’t have that prick in it,” he reportedly once remarked.

But Kilmer’s the man with the video camera, and he uses it to present his own take on The Island of Dr Moreau. He indicates that Brando was his hero, and it was director John Frankenheimer’s refusal to take Brando’s suggestions seriously that first indicated the production was doomed.

This claim is flatly contradicted by many directly involved with the production, who said that Frankenheimer was so eager to get the film moving he accepted most of Brando’s suggestions, drawing the line at the most outlandish few, including the finale the actor proposed, which was to reveal that Dr Moreau was really a dolphin all along. (It can’t get much clearer that the cynical, prankish Brando was playing everybody.)

Most people are inclined to rationalize themselves as the well-intentioned protagonists of their own life stories, but Kilmer is an extreme case of insisting on the dauntless hero’s role at all times. In an extensive New York Times profile, Kilmer responds to a question about his reputation for disruptive behavior that “knocked him off the A-list” by saying:

In an unflinching attempt to empower directors, actors and other collaborators to honor the truth and essence of each project, an attempt to breathe Suzukian life into a myriad of Hollywood moments, I had been deemed difficult and alienated the head of every major studio.

It’s an eye-popping attitude of spiritual superiority, given how easy it would be as a wiser old man to say of his younger self, “Yeah, I really developed a swelled head for awhile there.” After all, that is by no means an uncommon reaction to sudden stardom and all the pampering that goes along with it. But this inflated attitude of self-regard probably explains why Kilmer doesn’t deal with a whole host of topics in this documentary that seems to cry out for commentary.

My favorite is his terse claim, “Then Hollywood came calling” to explain his overnight jump to stardom. That stands in for what must be quite a tale. There’s Kilmer, a recent graduate of Julliard’s drama program already fulfilling his ambition to become a serious stage actor, and in a flash he’s playing leads in movies like the spy film spoof Top Secret! (1984) and the sci-fi comedy Real Genius (1985). A year later he plays the supporting role of Iceman in the enormous hit Top Gun (1986), and presto, he’s a major star.

Then there’s the odd fact that, in spite of all his frustrations with the shallow commercial mindset in Hollywood, and then his waning stardom, Kilmer never returns to the stage till very late in life. It’s not until his film career is basically over that he writes and performs in a one-man show about writer Mark Twain, called Citizen Twain. Even that sounds like an odd one, in part because it’s about a kind of reconciliation between Twain and Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Kilmer’s faith, Christian Science — a faith which Twain despised with his whole heart and mocked relentlessly in writing.

But Kilmer’s plans to take the play to Broadway and then adapt it as a film were crushed by throat cancer.

Kilmer is no more forthcoming about the dissolution of his marriage to actor Joanne Whalley, other than blaming the lengthy absences caused by his career. Though Kilmer does admit to straining the marriage by spending an entire year preparing to play Jim Morrison in The Doors — a preparation which involved such Method acting techniques as wearing the same pair of Morrison-style leather pants the whole time. Kilmer admits that Whalley “tried to be supportive” as their home became “just another place to rehearse,” with Kilmer obsessively playing Doors albums nonstop while training himself to talk, sing, and move just like Morrison. That sounds to me like grounds for divorce or murder, either one.

And post-split, the contestation over custody of and visiting rights with their children Mercedes and Jack is presented in one of Val’s videos, this one showing us a bitter argument with his ex over the phone — Kilmer’s side only, of course.

It’s quite a self-serving portrait, though the film has interesting aspects to it. I admit to having wondered what ever became of the Val Kilmer of Tombstone, who gave such a great performance it had everybody talking. He was quite good in a few other movies, such as Heat, but he was never again as inspired. In the documentary, Kilmer attends a special outdoor screening of Tombstone and is received rapturously by a large audience, and it’s no wonder — we see one particular line he delivered as Doc Holliday, repeated a few times, which seems to contain the whole mesmerizing quality of the performance within it. It’s during a poker game, and Holiday says in close-up, presumably in response to somebody raising the stakes in a big way, “Well, tha’ mus’ be a peach of a hand.”

It’s hard to describe how much dark irony that line contains — so much inwardness, Kilmer is slightly cross-eyed with it. Kilmer’s Doc is the most jaded of dandies, self-transplanted out to the Wild West where he can debauch himself and kill and die far away from the shocked eyes of his high-cultured Southern family and his professional peers (he was trained as a dentist) and everybody else who once knew him.

So naturally I wanted to know what happened to that guy.

In the documentary, Kilmer graciously states that he was so great in that role because it was so well-written, with the character already on the page. His claim is that Hollywood scriptwriting, as a rule, sucked so hard that it was a constant struggle to find anything halfway decent to play, and then when he finally did accept a film role, he generally had to find ways to invest depth into a thinly written character. That sounds true enough. But it doesn’t really explain why he hung onto Hollywood like a limpet when a return to the stage would always have been possible.

Was he snake-bitten by cinema, like Orson Welles claims to have been — too fascinated by the medium that ultimately destroyed him? Or was it the lifestyle Kilmer couldn’t part with? There’s a long history of that too. Peter Lorre was recognized as perhaps the greatest stage and screen actor in the world when he first came to Hollywood, and by the end of his career, the lush hedonistic lifestyle plus a drug addiction that would kill a horse had laid waste to his talent and left him playing the same smarmy creep over and over in B-horror movies with the occasional small parts in A-movies.

And then there’s the tragic motivating factor, the death of Kilmer’s younger brother Wesley, who drowned at fifteen, having suffered an epileptic seizure in the family jacuzzi. Wesley was an aspiring filmmaker and regarded as the genius of the family. Kilmer’s obsession with filming everything is pretty clearly a tribute to his lost brother.

Kilmer also reveals that financially he screwed up by trying to be a supportive son and cosigning several loans to his father Eugene, who endeavored to become a major California real estate mogul. So when things went south, Kilmer took the hit. The suggestion is he needed the big paydays that even bad films afforded him late in his career, when he was no longer a major draw. In the end, his major asset, a six-thousand-acre ranch in New Mexico where he’d hoped to establish a haven for artists, had to be sold to both settle his debts and finance Citizen Twain.

Though Val fails to mention that he still owns some Santa Fe acreage as well as an art gallery/studio space located on some prime Los Angeles real estate:

HelMel is an office space/art gallery/artists’ studio/retail museum for Val Kilmer’s movie career that takes up several storefronts and more than half the block of Melrose Avenue between Edgemont Street and Heliotrope Drive in Hollywood. Officially, according to Brad Koepenick, his childhood friend and adult business associate, who was in the room to help me better understand Kilmer, HelMel’s mission is to serve as “a fun, sacred space where eclectic artists gather with novices to collaborate, and through new technology, inspire change and spark giving in our local underserved community.”

In short, Kilmer is only financially ruined in Hollywood-star terms, not in ordinary-people terms. He’s doing just fine.

Still, what we see of Kilmer the family man is rather touching, because he’s so convincingly invested in these primary relationships. He mourns the loss of his mother in the film, and continues to be fascinated by her, saying that to him, she remains “as enigmatic as Ingrid Bergman — who was also Swedish.” We see that he’s still tight with his children, who seem extremely fond of him in return. His son Jack reads the film’s narration (written by his father), and his daughter Mercedes apparently lives next door to Kilmer in a desert duplex.

Not to mention there’s something poignant in the way Kilmer keeps going on in such a dogged way, after the combined losses of a lucrative film career, movie star looks, and finally his literal voice. Despite it all, Val depicts a man far from broken — always painting, videotaping, meeting fans, and even active in his church as a Christian Scientist, the faith he inherited from his mother. His refusal to give up is the most interesting thing about him.

Though I have to say, for a film about a passionate commitment to artistry, it’s a shame this doc isn’t more daring formally. Kilmer’s own videography never goes beyond the home movie level, and what the directors build on it never rises above an entirely conventional portrait documentary. Still, for those of you who ever wondered whatever happened to Val Kilmer, here’s your answer.

It’s far from a great portrait. But much like the actor behind it all, the charms are undeniable.