Posted On August 8, 2021
When I was 11 years old, Val Kilmer was Iceman in Top Gun. I hated the character. I was resolutely on the side of Maverick and Goose. By the time I was 16, however, he was Jim Morrison in The Doors. I was heavily into the band at that time, so Kilmer was essentially playing one of my musical heroes.
And it’s ironically a piece of Morrison’s poetry that I think of, as I think about this documentary.
As I look back
over my life
I am struck by post cards Ruined snap shots
faded posters Of a time, I can’t recall
Kilmer, it appears, was one of those guys who spent the 80s and 90s (and beyond), with a video camera in his hands. He amassed a ton of footage, which is frankly a documentary maker’s dream. Val talking about his siblings? We’ve got the footage. Val talking about his first apartment in NYC? We’ve got the footage. Val talking about his first trip to London? We’ve got the footage. You get the idea.
Less of a documentary maker’s dream, however, is the Kilmer of today has been fighting cancer in recent years, with a procedure on his trachea absolutely destroying his voice. His voice. Even when actors grow too old for the screen, it’s their voice that can still win them work on audio. Not here.
Kilmer’s voice is shot and although initially it was said to be just a swollen tongue (this is around the time he was denying having cancer, too), clearly the voice is gone for good. Because of the plastic tube in his throat, Kilmer can no longer eat food and uses a feeding tube to feed himself these days.
Enter Kilmer’s son, Jack, who narrates large sections of the story in a voice reminiscent – but by no means an impersonation of – Kilmer’s younger self. It’s strangely effective to have Jack’s narration alongside contemporary Kilmer in the footage being used, alongside a fair amount of the Kilmer of today, pressing his finger to the voicebox at his throat and croaking through what he wants to say.
The resulting documentary moves along at a fair clip, mostly using his larger movie appearances – Top Gun, Willow, The Doors, Batman Forever, Heat, etc – to show the passing of time, and throw in some candid footage. Many years ago I’d read about the ‘party house’ Kilmer ran during Top Gun filming, for example, and here we have Kilmer and several of the other actors playing pilots in the film, along with Kelly McGillis, partying on at the pad. Mostly these kind of clips aren’t revelatory in any way; no more revelatory than if you went out to McDonalds this afternoon with some mates and filmed them on your iPhone being goofy. But they do illustrate what was going on in Kilmer’s life at the time, with Jack’s narration smoothing the picture. Because it’s rare for an actor of Kilmer’s era to have been filmed so candidly to this extent, the footage really does feel like a peak into another world.
The documentary isn’t very tough in some areas, however, such discussing Kilmer’s on-set behaviour issues over the years. The Island of Dr. Moreau, for example, was apparently a pretty bad film set to be involved with, but most of the footage present in Val is Kilmer quietly bitching to co-star, David Thewlis, or rocking Marlon Brando in a hammock, or arguing with director John Frankenheimer in a way that makes Kilmer look reasonable… but Frankenheimer seems pretty reasonable, himself. It’s a bit strange. Similarly, there’s a phone call with ex-wife Joanne Whalley at one point which makes it look like she was being unreasonable about their co-parenting arrangements when their children were young. Later in the film, Whalley, Kilmer and the kids are all on a road trip to his mother’s house after she passed away. Once there, Kilmer runs around like a 10 year old spraying family members with Silly String. There seems to be no bad blood, but also no discussion between showing what appeared to be bad blood a decade or two ago, versus what’s happening in the family more recently.
And that’s probably my overriding takeaway from the film. Although there’s a ton of footage, and Kilmer’s writing the piece, it seems to paint in some very broad brush strokes with regard to his life. So although yes, this is his life, it feels like there’s quite a lot not being shown, too. It’s like poetry, rather than a textbook, if I can put it that way. And indeed, that creates its own kind of vibe, and is artistic in its own right, but anyone looking for lots of detail or ‘the real’ Val Kilmer might be disappointed.
One area I felt was really honest, however, was then Kilmer talks of his current life being built around selling photographs and trading on his past. It’s clear he doesn’t like the concept, but enjoys seeing fans and people who remember him. We see him at a Comic-Con event, singing tons of images and being asked almost verbatim, “Can you sign this, ‘You can be my wing man…’?” by punter after punter after punter shoving Top Gun photos at him. At one point, Kilmer appears to vomit into a garbage bin and has to go and lie down in the middle of the signing. At only 61 (and probably a year or two younger when this was filmed), Kilmer’s not a well man. It’s not just the voice but his whole body that’s gone through the wringer. Even his handsome face, decade after decade, seems to have suddenly given up. It’s a very sad thing to see, and from the dialogue Kilmer’s acutely aware of it. How could he not be?
I left the documentary with the sense that Kilmer felt he could have done more with his career and the timing of the cancer was particularly cruel (as if there’s ever a “good time” for it), as he was just about to film a Mark Twain passion project, having already delivered Citizen Twain stage shows all over the US and was ramping up to make a movie version. In the end, I believe there was a filming of one of the shows and this was promoted on the film circuit as Cinema Twain, but there’s a gulf between watching a play that’s been filmed and an actual movie adaptation of the same material.
The documentary is a must-watch for anyone who’s enjoyed Kilmer’s work over the years. It won’t answer a lot of questions, but it will take you into his world, his mind, and particularly how he’s thinking since cancer took over his life. Not that he’s been a recluse by any means since the diagnosis and losing his voice, however, I feel there’s a kind of freshness and an honestly and vulnerability to talking about some of the topics here – the ones Kilmer wants to talk about – that is worth it alone.