Marlon Brando’s famous definition of an actor goes: “An actor’s a guy who, if you ain’t talkin’ about him—ain’t listening.” There’s much truth to that. It might have been Jodie Foster who once said words to the effect of “I can’t stand 95 percent of actors.” It’s part of why I quit the business. But good actors are good people, and Val Kilmer, as evidenced by his new documentary “Val,” appears to be excellent people.
As with a lot of talented actors, we tend to associate them with the roles they’re best known for, and so since 1986’s “Top Gun,” I’ve thought Val Kilmer was “Iceman” and imagined I wouldn’t much like him in person. He’s so cocky and arrogant! No he’s not. Iceman is cocky. Turns out, the real Val Kilmer is kind of a goofball—in the best sense of the word. He’s a genuinely nice person.
“Val” begins with a fun sleight of hand. Clearly, it’s Val who’s narrating “Val.” But one notes that the man just had a major tracheotomy that saved his life from throat cancer; we’ve seen the trailer, heard him croaking through that plastic throat-plug. How’s he suddenly sounding this clear? Val’s signature laid-back So-Cal drawl is actually his son, Jack, on the voiceover mic. He’s a dead ringer for dad.
What It Is
Style-wise somewhat reminiscent of early MTV, “Val” is an extensively curated life journey, an expressionistic collage of the pantheon of Val’s recorded-filmed-photographed memories since early childhood. I say “extensively” because we’re talking about a guy who’s got reams upon reams of reels, from Super 8 film to Hi8 video, to phone footage, to childhood crayon doodles—all painstakingly stashed and boxed in a dedicated storage unit.
Val’s passion is the craft of acting, and everything to do with acting, which makes “Val” an acting master class of sorts. But it’s a bit too disjointed to actually, specifically be that because the film’s about his whole life. But it still functions as that in an all-over-the-place kind of way.
It’s a last stand; Val’s looking death in the face—time to leave a legacy. This is what actors have to work with: When you’re young, you play cops and lawyers; when you’re old, you play judges; when you’re really old, you play corpses. Or you write a book or make a movie about yourself, because when one gets to the end, one would like to say: “Here’s all the stuff I did. Remember me” (especially if you have director tendencies and have carried a camera around your whole life).
The entire world is currently making curated life-movies using nonstop smartphone life documentation, or writing memoirs. (In the writing industry, memoirs are “hot.”) Navy SEALs are writing memoirs even though that’s highly frowned on in their community. But people want to hear stories about other people; we want to see how they did this thing called life.
In the end, this film is a tale of the modern actor’s journey, especially interesting for those actors who love the stage and the craft but go to Hollywood to make movies and end up celebrities. Val is the perfect example of a character actor trapped in the body of a leading man.
Kilmer was a classic golden-boy actor: youngest actor every to be accepted to the ultra-prestigious Juilliard acting conservatory, phenomenally good-looking, and phenomenally talented. After Juilliard, his career arguably hit its zenith with “Top Gun” and “Tombstone,” but ended up stymied by the bat-suit.
The unwieldy, dense rubber suit functioned as a claustrophobic tomb with earplugs—he couldn’t hear anything—and it was a challenge to project any kind of acting whatsoever through all that rubber. As he says, “It made no difference what I was doing.”
He relates that fellow actors and crew on the set eventually just stopped talking to him. It was an actor’s worst nightmare, and it led to his epiphany that all young boys want to be the actual Batman. You might think as an actor that you’d want to play Batman—but you’d be wrong. And, if you turn down the next Batman movie, you’re labeled an ungrateful idiot.
Worse Than Batman
“The Island of Dr. Moreau” was worse. Kilmer took the job in order to work with (and hopefully learn from) his childhood idol, Marlon Brando. But the production was cursed. They tried switching directors in the middle of the stream, and thus director John Frankenheimer was playing catch-up ball and had zero time for any actor input.
Brando apparently had all kinds of fantastic, fun ideas for his role, but he was shut down creatively and then refused to be cooperative. This resulted in many of his scenes being filmed with a stand-in, and dashing Kilmer’s hopes for a fruitful artistic collaboration.
But this inability to get truly creative in Hollywood, and the resultant disillusion, was there from the start. With “Top Gun,” Kilmer thought the script was silly and didn’t like the warmongering, but he was under contract with Paramount.
And at this point you might think to yourself, “Poor Val, he didn’t want to be Batman, poor him.” You might sing an altered version of Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”:
“Now look at them yo-yos, that’s the way you do it
you play [the Batman] on the MTV
That ain’t workin’, that’s the way you do it
Money for nothin’ and your chicks for free …
Maybe get a blister on your little finger
Maybe get a blister on your thumb
We got to install microwave ovens, custom kitchen deliveries
We got to move these refrigerators, we got to move these color TVs …”
It’s difficult to have empathy for the agonizing of actors doing jobs where their main complaint (while making millions) is that they have to stand in a rubber suit and can’t hear anybody talk. But it all harks back to John Quincy Adams, who said, “I am a warrior, so that my son may be a merchant, so that his son may be a poet.” We all find our particular woes woeful. The Buddha said, “All beings are suffering.” Some of us suffer more than others …
But Val definitely suffered. He’s suffering right now. The first major tragedy of his young life was the death of his talented younger brother Wesley, who at age 15 drowned in the family jacuzzi during an epileptic seizure. Val and Wesley were exceptionally close, and Val felt he would have had a lifelong collaborative artistic partnership with Wesley.
Val’s father, like many fathers whose sons become successful, felt entitled to piggyback his real estate dreams on his son’s earnings. He secretly put Val’s name on over 20 failed shell companies, eventually necessitating Val to make the choice of either suing his own dad or bailing him out of bankruptcy. Ever the good son, Val drained his finances, paid his father’s debts, and went back to work.
Val’s wife, actress Joanne Whalley, served him with divorce papers while he was on set, shooting a movie.
Kilmer developed one of the worst reputations for “being difficult” on a movie set, and I personally bought all the rumors at the time—Kilmer is “Iceman,” after all. “Val” is a revelation, though, because you get to see the sincere dedication to the craft that he doesn’t want to compromise. It’s a dedication to purity and a tireless search for perfection, which is noble.
We get to see the hard work: the unsolicited audition tapes many driven actors make for roles they’re not up for but want nevertheless. Kilmer shot videos for “Full Metal Jacket” and “GoodFellas,” neither of which he got. It was his audition tape for “The Doors” that got him the part. He co-founded a playwriting program while at Juilliard. He sold his giant amount of acreage in New Mexico to fund a traveling one-man show of a play he wrote and starred in, about Mark Twain.
When it comes to Hollywood rumors, ever since the off-the-charts ridiculous late-1970s rumor about Richard Gere (if you’re over 30, you probably know what I’m talking about), I vowed never to pass judgment on public figures unless I’ve met them in person. I don’t always succeed at this. It’s good, though, to keep attempting not to be affected by America’s celebrity rumor mill.
But one remains curious: How did Kilmer get throat cancer? Why did his wife leave him? Other than his dad wiping out his bank account, why is he still struggling financially? Also, it’s mentioned early on that he’s a Christian Science devotee. I knew a hockey player in college who was a Christian Scientist. He got his left eye knocked out by a puck and refused to see a doctor because, the rumor went, he was waiting for it to grow back. How did Christian Science affect Kilmer’s throat cancer treatment plan? Curious minds wish to know.
Val’s signature role is still paying off, luckily. We see him at fan gatherings, signing posters, T-shirts, and hats. As he says (not exact words): “I’m selling basically my old self and my old career. I end up feeling really grateful instead of humiliated, because there are so many people.” Still, speaking of installing microwave ovens and moving color TVs, the exhaustion of being a cancer survivor and working long hours at a big convention center like Comic-Con is shattering.
What’s most shattering about “Val” is the juxtaposition of footage of Kilmer as a stunningly handsome young drama student rehearsing Shakespeare, and shots of him now looking wispy and frail as he puts on his beloved mother’s turquoise bracelets, ostensibly to draw closer to her memory, and then weeps inconsolably.
And speaking of Shakespeare, the tragedy of how quickly Val’s horizonless youthful possibilities slipped away can only be described as Shakespearean. The trouble is, we think we have time. Watch “Val.” Seize the day.
Directors: Ting Poo, Leo Scott
Starring: Val Kilmer
Running Time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Release Date: July 23, 2021
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years’ experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.