I don’t always feel the inclination to watch documentaries about actors, especially one who’s still living. But I find Val Kilmer to be one of the most fascinating contemporary actors and the fact that he’s actually credited as the cinematographer of the film is especially intriguing. Ever since he was a kid growing up with his two brothers, Val Edward Kilmer had a knack to document himself and his family all through childhood, which continues later throughout his career.
Apparently one of its directors, Leo Scott, discovered tapes of Val’s archive, while working as an editor for a short film project and later on Ting Poo joined the project as a co-director. Those 800 hours worth of footage was hidden in boxes for years! I wonder if Val hadn’t been diagnosed with throat cancer and lost his voice, perhaps these footage would’ve remained buried.
I often think people who encounter tragedy/grief early in life usually end up being a creative person. Val lost one of his brothers Wesley not long after his parents split up, which was especially devastating given how much he looked up to his younger brother who dreamed of becoming a filmmaker. Young Val would decorate his room with Wesley’s drawings as a way to cope with his loss, and like many actors, he’s got his start in youth theatre. I’ve always thought of Val as not a classically-handsome man but he’s got an undeniable screen presence and versatility.
I can’t remember which movie I first saw him in, it might have been his film debut Top Secret! which is one of my childhood fave as I first watched it with my older brothers. I remember loving his voice as he played an Elvis-like character in the 1984 absurd comedy. It’s actually quite sad to see clips of him singing in that movie. Now I don’t think that movie was a big hit, but his big break came in 1995 when he got cast in Top Gun. By his own admission, Val didn’t really want to do the movie at first, and there were some fun on-set footage and tidbits about his co-stars, including Tom Cruise.
Now, the most bizarre on-set footage has got to be The Island of Dr. Moreau, involving another one of his famous co-stars, Marlon Brando. That reminds me, I’m curious to see Listen to Me Marlon now. The third act of his film shows him tackling one of his personal heroes, Mark Twain, in a one-man play. His passion for this project is palpable, which is a testament that his love for performing isn’t necessarily driven by fame nor money.
Now, despite having been in big blockbusters, I mean he was Batman in Batman Forever, Val never quite get to A-list status. Now that I think about it, I haven’t seen a bunch of his films, not even his most famous role as Jim Morrison in The Doors. I think my fave roles of him is actually The Saint where he said he got to play 10 roles in one movie. He actually turned down the sequel Batman & Robin as he wanted to do The Saint instead, in hindsight that proved to be a very wise decision on his part. I also enjoyed his work in Heat and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang which is perhaps the last feature film I saw him in. But one doesn’t have to hugely familiar with his work to appreciate this film.
What I like the most is the authenticity, given it contains mostly archival footage he shot himself, but also its inherently personal nature. The film was narrated by his son Jack Kilmer, whose voice kinda resemble his when he was young. His daughter Mercedes Kilmer and ex-wife Joanne Whalley whom he was married to for 8 years also appeared in the film. It’s actually refreshing to see how close he is to his kids and they’re clearly fond of him. The tracheostomy caused him to have trouble speaking, though he did speak a few times in his raspy voice, even saying that he sounds worse than he feels. I have to admit I admire his positive outlook on life and that he didn’t become bitter because of his illness.
It felt like Val had directed this film himself, that it was his own voice telling his own story. Did I get to know him more after seeing this? Well yes and no. I got a glimpse about his passion for the craft of acting, his love for his family, and some fun anecdotes about his projects, but overall I think Val the person remains an enigma. He kept mentioning about faith, but it’s never clear exactly what he believes. Still, this is quite a unique piece of self reflection of an extraordinary artist and a soulful man. Given he hasn’t lost his zest for life, it made me wish he’d be given a chance for a real comeback one of these days. For starters, I’m glad he’ll be reprising his role as Iceman in Top Gun: Maverick.
VAL is now streaming on Amazon Prime.