If you were looking for the Val Kilmer character most emblematic of the man himself, Jim Morrison might be the place to start. Cool, charismatic, difficult by reputation, spiritual in temperament, maybe misunderstood, and definitely overlooked in favour of more credible peers by cultural gatekeepers, he has a few things in common with the man who played him in Oliver Stone’s The Doors.
From his breakthrough role, 1984 spy spoof Top Secret!, in which Kilmer played an altogether sillier front man, to his mid-‘90s heyday of Batman Forever, Heat and The Saint, he brought rock star swagger and the hint of a sneer to his Hollywood roles. But he was never comfortable with what Hollywood had in mind for him – he wanted to work with Brando, not the Boy Wonder. Even Top Gun, the blockbuster that propelled him onto the A-list, was foisted on him as a contractual obligation.
These are just a few of the many revelations to emerge from this intimate and touching assemblage of Kilmer’s own lifetime of home video footage. Val reassembles his life on screen, and off it, with a scrappy pop-art aesthetic that mirrors his own sideline as an artist. It’s a bit like flicking through a personal photo album, cancer-survivor memoir, actor’s handbook and IMDb page all at once – a map to his deepest sorrows and biggest triumphs.
Co-directed by Leo Scott and Ting Poo, but feeling more like Kilmer did it himself, Val is a vanity-free memoir contextualised by his battle with throat cancer. He is unable to eat without a feeding tube and his voice has been left raspy by two tracheotomies (his sound-alike son, Jack, voices his recollections in the film).
Unpalatable choices are made to keep things ticking over and bills paid. ‘I feel very, very low,’ he says at a fan event for his 1993 western Tombstone, ‘flying around selling my old self, my old career’. Watching him taking time out from signing autographs at New York Comic-Con to vomit is tough, almost an invasion. But it serves as a poignant, painful reminder that the illusions of the movies only reach so far. Even Iceman gets sick.
Of course, when Kilmer did finally get to work with Brando – on 1996’s The Island of Dr Moreau – the film was a disaster. Kilmer’s own footage shows him as a jokey on-set presence who had long since stopped taking it seriously. If his delight in tormenting replacement director John Frankenheimer plays into the idea that he could be challenging to work with, Val shows his other side as a serious collaborator too. (It’s also a fascinating, rubber-necking companion piece to Lost Soul, the doc about the film’s ill-fated first director, Richard Stanley).
The idea of a brilliant Juilliard student who took a wrong turn at the start of his career, only to find fulfilment in its final days, takes shape as Kilmer stages his one-man show about Mark Twain. It would be his pre-cancer swansong (the film version he hoped to make never came to fruition), but here it’s more of an epitaph to a career that didn’t always deliver what he hoped it would. He’s mesmerising in the role, showcasing his talent in a way his big-screen work so rarely did.
Kilmer’s The Doors director Oliver Stone once called him a ‘puzzle wrapped in a conundrum inside an enigma’. Val unwraps those layers with self-effacing humour and unsparing candour. Many actors hold their secrets and their craft close; Kilmer throws his out to the universe.
In US theaters now and streaming on Amazon Prime Video Aug 6.