R, 109 mins.
2021, R, 109 mins.
A documentary directed by Leo Scott and Ting Poo
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.