I’ve been miserable this past week or two. Things haven’t been going great for me, and writing endlessly about the depressing state of the world has left me feeling like curling up into a ball under the bed and wasting away.
So, instead, I decided to visit a while with my first love; the movies.
This odyssey started by randomly watching the documentary Val on Amazon Prime, which is cut from thousands of hours of video from actor, writer, and artist Val Kilmer’s personal collection that he has obsessively collected throughout his life.
The footage includes his childhood adventures, personal time with his wife and family, and some very youthful backstage silliness with Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon. Along with more recent, and sometimes painful to watch, interviews regarding his 2015 battle with throat cancer.
After surviving chemotherapy and a double tracheotomy, Kilmer sadly speaks like a robot and feeds through a tube.
For those, like me, who fall into the category of Generation X (aka the coolest named generation), there were a handful of stars on the movie screen who seemed destined to become great as we came of age.
Previously, the youngest person accepted to The Julliard School in New York City, Kilmer is an actor whose star rose during the mid-eighties before he eventually drove his career over a cliff due to poor choices and a self-diagnosed reputation for being somewhat hard to work with.
Also, looking back at it now, Kilmer is arguably the most talented movie star of his generation to never gain the gravitas of an Oscar win. Or, more incredibly, to never receive so much as a nomination.
So, suitably depressed, I decided to watch some of Kilmer’s classic movies again to figure out where it all went wrong before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences dates this article by giving him a pity-fuck of an Oscar for still being alive.
I have to say; it’s been a blast.
Top Secret! (1984)
In his first movie, which was brought to us by the same team that created the groundbreaking, Airplane! (1980) Val Kilmer takes the lead as Nick Rivers, an American Rock and Roll star sent on a cultural mission to East Germany who soon becomes embroiled in a plot with the French Resistance.
Rivers is essentially a blond Elvis Presley in this musical/war/spy/spoof. With Kilmer bringing great comedic timing, annoyingly good looks, his own singing voice, and a hip-shakingly perfect impression of the King’s moves—which he would put to good use again as a spirit guide version of Elvis to Christian Slater’s Clarence Worley in True Romance (1993).
While Airplane! was an all-original and unrelenting joke-athon that took us through the fourth wall and even behind the set, it had the advantage of mostly taking place on a plane and in a flight tower. Therefore, the jokes had to keep coming at a breakneck pace to compensate for the lack of visual diversity. In Top Secret! The budget is bigger, and the sets keep changing, giving us many great visual gags but far fewer classic lines. It leaves the impression that the movie is slower and not as funny in comparison, which is unfair.
Either way, Kilmer made it clear that he could carry a movie and be a star.
My question, however, is, did his first movie being a comedy spoof misidentify him as a pretty boy, lightweight from the get-go rather than a creative force to be taken more seriously?
Perhaps so, as his next movie was the classic science fiction comedy, Real Genius (1985), about college students who invent new laser technology.
They must foil their professor who is attempting to turn their creation into a military weapon to monetize it. It is a lot of fun, certainly holds up decades later, but the stereotype is strong in this one.
Next, however, Kilmer was contractually obliged to take a role that he didn’t want to do because it was kind of stupid, and he didn’t like the messaging in the movie.
Even so, he did allow it to take him into the Danger Zone.
Top Gun (1986)
Combine the big Eighties hair and the Ray-Bans with that very homo-erotic volleyball scene, the weird teeth snapping thing he does at Tom Cruise along with the cool way he spins his gold pen around his fingers during flight class, and Kilmer is the perfect US Navy aviator; Tom “Iceman” Kazansky.
And, as such, he flies away with every scene.
It’s true that “Ice’ is a bit dull in that stuffed shirt military way, and he isn’t as instinctual or crazy as Cruise’s character, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, but he doesn’t get any of his buddies killed in the movie either. So, there’s that.
The extraordinary success of Top Gun (even by superhero movie standards, it would be a monster hit in today’s money) made it seem obvious that Kilmer and Cruise were not just movie stars but global megastars.
It turns out that fate would only call on one of them to stay that high up, but they will both be returning for the sequel, Top Gun: Maverick (2021), due (after much delay) to be released on November 19—honestly, I can hardly wait.
A story by George Lucas, directed by Ron Howard and starring a cool little person, Warwick (Star Wars movies, Harry Potter movies, and the Ricky Gervais creation, Life’s Too Short) Davis as the eponymous Willow.
This movie feels long, tries too hard, and even the presence of the beautiful Joanne Whalley can’t save it.
Meanwhile, Kilmer plays a crazy, sword-wielding anti-hero who is only out for himself but ultimately protects Willow during his quest. Although Kilmer does his best to make something of it, seriously, nobody can do much about this flick. If you didn’t grow up loving it, I think you may find it almost impossible to get through as an adult.
I wouldn’t watch it again for sure.
The Doors (1991)
This seemed like it would be a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination for Kilmer. He embodied the role and soul of singer Jim Morrison. Even going so far as upsetting his wife by wearing nothing but the same leather pants for a full year before it started shooting.
Surviving members of the band said they couldn’t tell the difference between Kilmer and Morrison’s vocal performance on the soundtrack—it was a tour de force. The thing is, though, even with all that, the movie itself was a bit long, and The Doors were not exactly the biggest band of all time—or even their own time. Which, may explain why the movie made only two million dollars more than its budget.
I bought my ticket, however, and was genuinely moved by it. My emotional investment being so strong that I shed a tear at the end when the camera took us to Morrison’s grave at Pere LaChaise Cemetery in Paris, France.
There was a greater snobbery to the Academy Awards back then. This was pre-internet when professional reviewers still carried a lot of weight. Contrast this to when Rami Malek won his Oscar (and pretty much every other award) for playing Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). Malek’s performance was probably as good as Kilmer’s, but the movie was nowhere near as accomplished as The Doors. However, didn’t we all love singing along to the tunes?
So, was Kilmer robbed of his Oscar glory? Well, the short answer is no and yes. If nominated, he would have been up against Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs (1991), and that would be that. However, he was definitely better than at least two of the other nominees, so it seems rude not to have gotten a nod.
This Western movie revival focused on the true-life story of the events leading up to and after the most famous shootout in America’s Wild West, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place on October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Arizona.
The legendary battle was between the Cowboys led by Ike Clanton and the Lawmen led by Virgil Earp.
It lasted all of 30 seconds.
In the movie, Val Kilmer plays John “Doc” Holliday as the bromantic partner to Kurt Russell’s formidable and strongly mustachioed Wyatt Earp, while the ever mustache wearing Sam Elliot puts his very best top lip topiary forward as Virgil Earp.
However, the death of Bill Paxton as Morgan “I’ve got a mustache too” Earp aside, it is the exquisitely educated, consumptive, but lethal Doc Holliday who commands our attention in every scene.
It’s a great movie, a story about brothers and friendship, but it misses out on one critical factor—there is no compelling bad guy. All the members of the Cowboy Gang seem like goons. No leader provides a reason to truly fear for our heroes’ safety. This lack of jeopardy, I believe, lets down the movie overall.
Okay, but was Kilmer robbed of his Oscar nomination again?
1993 was a solid year in the category of Best Supporting Actor. Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for; What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Ralph Fiennes for; Schindler’s List, John Malkovich for; In the Line of Fire, and Pete Postlethwaite for; In the Name of the Father. Finally, and in my opinion the weakest performance, the winner, Tommy Lee Jones for; The Fugitive.
Therefore, although one could make arguments for Kilmer being better than Jones or even Postlethwaite, sometimes it’s a little about timing and a lot about luck, and Kilmer was shit out of both again this year.
Fun fact: I just realized while writing this that I have visited the graves of Doc Holliday in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, USA, and Jim Morrison in Paris, France. Spooky…
Batman Forever (1995)
As far as movie gigs go playing the Batman is up there with being James Bond as a career-defining moment in an actor’s life. But, Kilmer had a tough time with donning the cowl and cape.
The suit apparently made it impossible to move, which was a problem that Michael Keaton also had. If one watches either Keaton or Kilmer as the Batman, you will notice that they cannot move their heads and lean awkwardly when they turn to see. In the documentary, Val, Kilmer tells us that he also couldn’t hear while wearing the suit and that it was very isolating, making him feel like nothing but a walking prop.
Now that Tim Burton had given up the directing chair. Joel Schumacher had given us a more night-glow vision rather than the gothic sets that had come before. The Batman became almost second fiddle to B-List villains such as Riddler and Two-Face—played by Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones, respectively. Both of them, by the way, albeit left their teeth marks in the set.
Featuring Nicole Kidman as the gorgeous love interest of Bruce Wayne (and Batman) and the delightful Drew Barrymore in a cameo, Batman Forever is a fairly decent movie and was financially very successful.
Further, the Batman’s creator, Bob Kane, told Cinescape in an interview at the time that he thought Kilmer was the best Batman he had seen on screen to date, which is quite the review.
An unhappy Kilmer, however, made a decision that probably changed his life forever. He decided not to return as the dark knight detective, and the role passed to soap actor and future coffee salesman George Clooney in Batman & Robin (1997).
In this movie, all Kilmer had to do to make an impact was to show up and not disappear behind the guys with top billing.
The story features a battle between Hollywood Titans.
Al Pacino is the cop on the tail of Robert DeNiro’s gang of high-stakes, all-action bank robbers. It had been an onscreen confrontation movie fans had waited for a generation to see, and it did not disappoint.
Written and directed by Michael Mann and shot by his longtime cinematographer Dante Spinotti (they brought Hannibal Lecktor [sic] to the big screen in Manhunter (1986), which y’all should watch!) Heat is a phenomenal action flick with a heart. It pulls the audience between the need for the forces of law and order to win while just wanting the robbers to get away with it because they’re so damn charming.
As Chris Shiherlis, Kilmer brings humanity to the movie. He is flawed, a gambler who can’t quit, but he loves his wife, and, in the end, that is what keeps him alive. And gives the audience a win-win of sorts.
Finally, if you have never seen Heat, it features the most realistic gun fights ever put on film. With Val Kilmer’s scenes being used by the US Marine Corps to demonstrate a proper and rapid reload to recruits. Also, the USMC acknowledged the movie accurately portrayed how to retreat while under enemy fire.
It is an all-around monster of a movie that shouldn’t be missed.
The Saint (1997)
Although disparaged mainly by those who haven’t seen it, The Saint is actually a good movie in a cool, fun, espionage kind of way.
But, here’s the thing; The late Sir Roger Moore went from playing Simon Templar (aka The Saint) to playing James Bond, 007—basically from a B-List television character to an A-List movie character.
Begging the question; who goes from playing Bruce Wayne to playing Simon Templar? It’s a weird career choice. The sixties television show was a long time ago, and The Saint wasn’t really that well known anymore. So, other than the fun of physically playing the role, what was Kilmer thinking?
It is not a Bond movie, it is not a Batman movie, it doesn’t rely on crazy cool stunts, but it does have lots of clever disguises and Kilmer becoming multiple characters—he’s not quite James McAvoy in Split (2016) but certainly still brings it. The undercover chicanery are the scenes that, for the most part, replace the extended fight scenes in regular action films. You have to enjoy it as a fun romp rather than the next Fast and the Furious style flick.
So, kickback, feet up, popcorn, enjoy.
At this stage in his career, Kilmer had burned bridges with much of the big money in Hollywood. He was a pain to work with; he had dropped out of a dream role and almost tanked the Batman franchise in the process of doing so, and then came Red Planet (2000), which was a massive critical and commercial bomb that lost the money-men $50 million. And, with that, things were looking very bleak for Kilmer ever having success in a mainstream movie again.
The Salton Sea (2002) is a brilliant indie neo-noir thriller co-starring the always awesome Vincent D’Onofrio and certainly one to watch. It was also the last movie Kilmer made before starting to drive over the edge into direct-to-video hell.
There were, though, just a couple of movies in-between the trash before it was all over.
This is a story featuring another real-life person being portrayed by Kilmer. However, I have no interest in visiting the grave of this one; John Holmes—the most famous porn star of all time. The movie is set after Holmes’ pornography career and when he was well into his second career as a drug addict, and before, obviously, he died of AIDS-related complications.
It is the true story of the Wonderland murders, with which Holmes was somehow involved. Although we never really know to what degree he took part, memories are quite sketchy of the evening in question, and most witnesses were murdered. But it is an unrelenting trip into the greatest excesses of the early eighties and one of the last great performances from Kilmer as the drug-addled loser with a foot-long in his boxer briefs.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
The title refers to the name given to James Bond in Dr. No (1962) by an Italian journalist—i.e., Mr. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. It is also the directorial debut of Shane Black, the screenwriter of hit movies like Lethal Weapon (1987) and The Last Action Hero (1993).
In this dark, comedic crime film Robert Downey Jr is Harry Lockhart, a thief who accidentally auditions for and is subsequently cast in, a movie by way of some contrived silliness—how very meta. Meanwhile, Kilmer is “Gay” Perry van Shrike, a private detective teaching Lockhart how to act like a real detective for his new part. Things do not go according to plan; there are some sick jokes, the plot twists and turns like a waterpark flume and, for those who would enjoy such a thing, there is a bit of a comedy make-out session between Kilmer and Downey in an only one character is gay but both actors are straight, which makes it kind of funny, way?
Most importantly, this is the most recent appearance of Val Kilmer, which made it to the big screen that is worth making an effort to watch. Do check it out because it’s a genuinely good film and definitely worth it.
Well, that’s the end of my movie adventures with Val Kilmer. It was fun; there were some great performances, awesome scenes, great stories, and hilarious moments. However, there is nowhere left to go now but into Nicholas Cage-Esque direct-to-video territory, and I refuse to do that with Mr. Kilmer as he deserves better.
One final word: My all-time favorite comedy-detective show is Psych (2006) which often featured the Generation X stars that defined the eighties. For example, all but one [Emilio Estevez] of The Breakfast Club (1985) guest-starred in the show over the years.
In the final episode, first aired on March 26, 2014, the lead character Shawn Spencer says goodbye to the other characters in the show via video, including Detective Dobson, who, until that moment, had been mentioned multiple times over the previous eight years but never appeared on the screen. We discover, in a thirty-second cameo, that Dobson is actually Val Kilmer.
“Detective Dobson. What can I say? We didn't get to speak nearly as much as I ever would have liked, but I heard more about you than anyone ever could. And you sound heroic. The kind of guy that I could have worshipped as a child, and an adolescent, well into my twenties,” Shawn says.
“Well into my twenties” would be right around the age I was when Kilmer started to crash after The Saint. So, I think I know what Shawn means.
Almost exactly one year after shooting that scene, Val Kilmer would be diagnosed with throat cancer. Therefore, we come full circle. How very appropriate. Molloy