A film review by Craig J. Koban August 15, 2021

VAL jjj
 

2021, R, 109 mins.

 

A documentary directed by Leo Scott and Ting Poo

 

 

 

ORIGINAL FILM

Is Val Kilmer one of the greatest actors to have never been nominated for an Oscar?    

I would argue yes, especially when one considers the superlative range that this former Juilliard trained prodigy has demonstrated for decades in terms of his roles.

His work playing Doc Holiday in TOMBSTONE and his more iconic turn as Jim Morrison in THE DOORS should have at least solidified Academy Award consideration, but he was egregiously snubbed.  Apart from that, he's occupied seemingly every type of movie genre with relative ease, from action pictures like TOP GUN to genre spoofs like TOP SECRET to, yes, playing the Caped Crusader himself in BATMAN FOREVER.  There's very little that this Chatsworth, California raised talent couldn't do on screen, but as the utterly enthralling, deeply moving, and unendingly sad new Amazon produced documentary VAL demonstrates, Kilmer was dealt a very rotten card in life with a cancer diagnosis that mostly robbed him of his leading man handsome looks and, worst of all, his voice.  Directed by Leo Scott and Ting Poo and produced by Kilmer himself via edited together archival footage (from thousands of hours of his home video footage, more on that in a bit) and interviews, VAL presents a sobering and thoroughly enlightening portal into the eccentric performer's mind, celebrating both his staggering achievements as well as his personal tragedies. 

The footage unearthed here from Kilmer's massive collection (shot by him throughout the entirety of his life and storied career) is both revelatory and astounding.  We just don't get footage of the behind the scenes machinations of his film shoots, but also of his Juilliard days, his childhood with family and friends, and his personal time spent with his own ex-wife and kids, the latter of which are shown as a positive beacon of influence in keeping him in great spirits and active in his cancer recovery life.  Kilmer was one of the first in his fraternity of acting BFFS to have a camcorder, and the results in VAL - miraculously edited down from what is reported to be 800-plus hours of material well preserved by the actor himself - speak for themselves.  Kilmer's life - so to speak - was in the can and in storage, sitting there for decades for the right time to spring loose on the world.  And because this is Kilmer's life story and is told in his own words, he recruited his young son in Jack to narrate the entire documentary, seeing as Kilmer's current condition would have rendered his vocal involvement an impossibility.  We even get a nifty meta moment in the doc of Jack entering the recording booth to begin the recording of his voiceover track, and it's instances like this - and many more - that make VAL an atypically poignant and personal affair as far as life stories go. 

Overall, VAL follows a fairly standard arc of relaying the history of its subject matter, chronicling Kilmer's life from childhood/adolescence to his Juilliard days and ultimately to his big screen break and future successes (and setbacks and failures, to be fair).  He was born to Christian scientist parents and was deeply close to his two brothers in Mark and Wesley, with the latter being the spark that lit the fire of Kilmer's acting passions.  Wesley - with his siblings in tow - made hours upon hours of home movies that recreated classics like THE GREAT RACE and JAWS.  We learn of Kilmer's growing passion to perform at this tender age, which manifested in him becoming the youngest student ever admitted to Juilliard.  This was a dream come true for the young Kilmer, but this achievement was mired in tragedy, though, as Wesley died in his teens shortly before his admission, leaving Kilmer an emotional mess.  Nevertheless, he remained headstrong and determined to give acting everything he had, going deep into method and questioning status quos, much to the chagrin of his instructors.   We do get nuggets of pure gold footage showing Kilmer with a young Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon on stage.   

 

 

Hollywood eventually came beckoning, leading to Kilmer's big break in TOP SECRET (incidentally, one of my favorite comedies of all time), which was an ingenious spoof on Elvis Presley musicals and WWII spy thrillers (coincidentally, he would play a ghostly version of The King much later in his career in TRUE ROMANCE).  Kilmer offers up many thoughtful (and sometimes damning) asides about his film work.  His memories about his first foray into cinema were not the most warm and fuzzy (the Shakespeare obsessed thespian was disappointed by the fact that he methodically trained to play the guitar for months for the TOP SECRET role, but then was told by the directors that looking like he was faking it on screen would be funnier).  This led to larger, more mainstream successes like TOP GUN, which shot Kilmer into the stratosphere, going from unknown to on-the-map star.  Yet, Kilmer initially hated the idea of appearing in a film that seemed to be promoting war mongering and militarism.  He took his role of Iceman seriously, though, and went so method that he actively tried to segregate himself from co-star Tom Cruise and encouraged rivalry between them off camera.  You just have to admire his brazen chutzpah so early in his career. 

Of course, no doc about Kilmer's career would be complete without mentioning his greatest role in Jim Morrison, and VAL shows the maniacal levels of immersion he took to inhabit this doomed musician (his audition tapes are extraordinary, as are other ones he made and shot himself for other film roles, like FULL METAL JACKET, which he apparently hand delivered to Stanley Kubrick himself).  And, yes, Kilmer famously donned the cape and cowl to replace a defected Michael Keaton in 1995's BATMAN FOREVER, which, by his own admission, was a role that he was elated to accept after being offered it and without a written script or director named (he recalls his wide eyed boyhood time on the set of the original Adam West led BATMAN TV series of the sixties).  It's at this stage and beyond where any fond memories of his past roles seem to erode, with BATMAN FOREVER being an unfortunate turning point in his career towards a downward spiral.  "Whatever boyish excitement I had going in was crushed," he pathetically relays, "I realized that my job was just to show up and stand where they told me."  In his mind, every boy (including himself) wanted to be Batman, but those dreams are destroyed by the realities of playing Batman in a movie.  He sarcastically labeled his work in the film as "soap opera" worthy.  In his mind, the film's co-stars in Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones had a field day cutting loose as the villains, whereas he was buried under pounds of suffocating foam latex with only his chin and famous pouty lips exposed. 

Demoralizing setbacks like that - which prompted Kilmer to avoid appearing in BATMAN & ROBIN (a most wise move) - led to more destabilizing career roadblocks, like his notorious experience filming THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, which he initially thought was a dream project that would pair him with his idol in Marlon Brando, but the whole legendarily troubled production thrust Kilmer right into the heart of filmmaking darkness.  Not only was Brando a far cry from his classic visage of old (we do get a sweet moment, however, of Kilmer pushing the rotund actor in his hammock during their off time), but Kilmer's relationship with director John Frankenheimer was a disaster from the start.  In one of doc's most fascinating pieces of archival footage and audio, we can hear the bitter and tired director lambasting Kilmer for what he perceives as his silver spoon fed narcissism and ego (to be fair, he does plead with Kilmer to put his camcorder down, seeing as he doesn't want his movie production turned into a personal documentary production), but Kilmer stubbornly relents.  A weakness in VAL is that the doc doesn't entirely deep dive into Kilmer's well reported bad boy on-set behavior during his career.  We get lightning brief interview segments of some of his co-stars exonerating him...but not much else. 

And what of Kilmer's less than sterling marriage or ties to his parents?  It's dealt with here and there in VAL, sometimes in an unsatisfying manner.  His relationship with wife Joanne Whalley (whom he fell in love with on the set of the George Lucas produced and Ron Howard directed WILLOW) ended in a nasty divorce (instances of infidelity by the actor are never addressed, and Whalley is never interviewed in the film).  Kilmer's ties to his parents, both biological and step, are given a bit more screen time, although their ties to Christian Science are kind of an afterthought in terms of focus.  One severely damaging episode of Kilmer's life was his time investing his Hollywood money into his dad's land purchasing business, which turned out to be a scheming disaster, leaving the actor with the prospect of either suing his father or paying him to make the troubles (and most likely media attention) go away.  Kilmer chose to pay his dad, leading to his own debt woes that can still be felt in the present day.  What a shame.   

The real heartbreaking tragedies that befell Kilmer are given great prominence in VAL, like how his passion to bring a big screen version of his one man Mark Twain themed stage play to fruition was all but destroyed with his cancer diagnosis.   Kilmer was taken to the UCLA hospital in 2015 with speech complications, and despite the fact that his condition rapidly deteriorated and was far worse than he admitted (and would later be diagnosed as cancerous), the actor steadfastly denied any positive tumor test results (he made a long social media post denying it all, which the doc conveniently leaves out).  He later realized the futility of hiding behind the news and finally revealed in 2017 that he was ravaged by cancer, but his treatments had rendered him cancer-free and in recovery.  The end results of his two year ordeal with chemotherapy and multiple tracheotomies have severely reduced his voice to a raspy whisper and resulted in his inability to eat without a feeding tube.  The biggest blow: his movie and stage acting career were essentially over. 

This is what makes the usage of Kilmer's son in Jack serving as his voice in VAL all the more compelling.  At 61-years-old now and struggling to talk via a hole in his larynx (leading to the doc requiring subtitles whenever he does speak), using Jack to provide an audio commentary of his father's life is heartrending and fitting.  One of the more uplifting elements of VAL is that the actor never seems to let his current physical state get the better of him, and instead he seems to live his life to the fullest while living vicariously through his children.  And despite the hellish medical procedures that have left him a shell of his former self, Kilmer remains as rambunctiously energetic, playful, and self-deprecating as ever.  And he has grown to accept the good and bad choices in his career, which gave him his livelihood.  He appears in a recent fan sponsored outdoor TOMBSTONE screening event, much to the attendee's delights.  But there are some crushing ironies on display here as well, such as the doc's most unnerving moment when the deeply frail looking Kilmer attends a Comic Con autograph event, signing fan brought props for moves he didn't want to make in the first place, like TOP GUN and BATMAN FOREVER.  At one moment he signals to his handler that he's getting sick and then proceeds to vomit in a nearby garbage can.  He's then wheeled away from the booth with a blanket tossed over his head to spare his dignity.  It's really, really hard to watch. 

But, not willing to face the disappointment of his adoring fanbase, Kilmer did soldier back to the booth and continue to sign autographs, which absolutely has to be respected.  It's also sequences like this that makes VAL simultaneously intoxicating and depressing to sit through,  but the doc rises above some of its more notable omissions by giving us an unprecedented amount of access to a famous movie star from his own personal collection of lifelong archived footage, something that most highly guarded movie stars would never dare made public.  Kilmer makes for an intrinsically fascinating subject: He went from humble beginnings from Juilliard trained acting dynamo to Hollywood star and then to a post-silver screen life that was beset with career and nearly life ending roadblocks.  He was also a complicated man that, for reasons far and varied, never attained the upper echelon celebrity status of some of his co-stars like Tom Cruise.  And, as alluded to earlier, Kilmer has never been Oscar nominated, which is a miscarriage of award justice.  I doubt that Kilmer cared much then or cares now, because he was always a reluctant movie star that simply yearned to evolve his craft.  Life in movies (for better and/or worse) was simply a biproduct of that.  And considering what he's gone through both in his personal and professional life, it's ultimately inspirational to see Kilmer take everything in stride with a commendably cheerful demeanor.  

He's still a likeable and self deprecating huckleberry.  No question.  

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