There was a time when Val Kilmer was one of the most sought after actors in Hollywood. In the 1980’s and through much of the 90’s Kilmer was everywhere and a long and prosperous career seemed all but a certainty. He played high-profile characters like Jim Morrison, Doc Holliday, even Batman. But in recent years his life has taken dramatically different form. A two-year battle with throat cancer left the star of such films as “Top Gun”, “Tombstone”, and “Heat” barely able to speak and on a feeding tube.
The new documentary “Val” recently premiered at the Cannes film Festival just ahead of its streaming release on Amazon Prime. It’s a intensely personal film with a deep sense of longing, not so much for a career that once was, but for a chance to finally tell his life story in his own words. Over the years Kilmer has shot and collected thousands of hours of video tapes and film reels. They include 16mm home movies, audition tapes, and behind the scenes video which co-directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo use to paint a unique and bittersweet portrait.
The narration was written by Kilmer himself and is presented from his perspective. It’s recited by Val’s 26-year-old son Jack whose voice carries an uncanny resemblance to his father’s. Full of old footage and peppered with the actor’s unique artistry, “Val” begins its first-person journey with a look into his life growing up with two brothers in the San Fernando Valley. His industrialist father and his horse-loving mother gave them a comfortable life even buying Roy Rogers’ old ranch when it went up for sale. The creative siblings turned the ranch into their own movie studio and nurtured there love for movie-making.
Our trek through Kilmer’s youth show there were also devastating heartaches. His parents would divorce when Val was 8-years-old due to his father’s many affairs. But nothing could prepare his family for the tragic death of his 15-year-old brother Wesley. From Kilmer’s own words “there were no more home videos, no more make-shift plays“. In a painful admission “Our family was never the same again.” He had lost not only his closest sibling but his best friend. It’s a loss he carries with him to this day.
One of the most compelling parts of “Val” is the intimate and eye-opening perspective it gives into Kilmer’s incredible yet complicated acting career. Kilmer and his handheld camera walk us across his professional timeline, beginning with his early days as the youngest person accepted into the Juilliard School in New York. We see his initiation into Hollywood with the hilarious “Top Secret!”. And of course his first taste of stardom that came with “Top Gun” and grew with films like “The Doors” and “Batman Forever”. And the film doesn’t shy away from his later struggles and his effort to reinvent himself through one-man stage show titled “Cinema Twain”.
Along the way Kilmer shares his own personal behind-the-scenes footage taken from numerous movie sets and featuring co-stars like Kurt Russell, Marlon Brando, Mira Sorvino, Tom Cruise, David Thewlis, and Tom Sizemore. Some of the most insightful bits include hearing him express his excitement and then utter disappointment in playing Batman. And his video from the troubled set of 1996’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau” that includes a spat with the film’s director John Frankenheimer.
The documentary also touches on the long-held perception that Kilmer was “difficult” to work with. But the Val we see is more of a perfectionist than a trouble-maker. He certainly had his run-ins and you sense there are things he regrets. But Kilmer was always about the art and finding the soul in every role. He brought a seriousness and an intensity to his work which led to some viewing him as “difficult”. Media outlets quickly picked up on it and ran. But there are just as many who worked with Kilmer that pushed back. We see clips from Oliver Stone, Mira Sorvino, Robert Downey, Jr. and others who outright refute the claims.
In Oliver Stone’s clip he called Val Kilmer “a puzzle inside a mystery wrapped in an enigma”. The man we see in “Val” fits that description but not in some overly eccentric way. He is a man who once found fame but was never comfortable with it. He was never driven by fame. Instead he set out to find roles that would “transform” him. “Val” shows us that professional side, but also the private side that few outside of his family ever got to see. The movie sometimes gets lost in the artist’s self-reflection, but it’s hard to knock something this personal and cathartic. “Val” opens in select theaters Friday (July 23rd) and streaming on Amazon Prime August 6th.