By far the strangest interview I ever conducted was with Val Kilmer. In 2005, he was in town to host the Boston Film Festival premiere of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” an event I was later informed Kilmer could not be cajoled out of his hotel room to attend. That morning, however, the star was in high spirits and amusing himself to no end by making life as difficult as possible for the studio’s regional publicist, a bright and capable young woman who shortly thereafter left to pursue what I can only hope was a more rewarding line of work. She’d arranged a traditional press junket, in which Kilmer and the film’s writer-director Shane Black were shuffled back and forth between hotel rooms to speak to waiting journalists. Except when it came time to talk to me, Kilmer’s eyes bugged out and his face went ashen with mock terror. “No!” he shouted, and bolted from the room, sprinting down the hotel hallway.
“I think,” the publicist sighed, already exhausted early in the day, “he probably went to use the restroom.”
Kilmer wandered back eventually, and we wound up having a rather delightful conversation about his friendship with Bob Dylan. He’d heard through the grapevine that the singer was a huge fan of Kilmer’s 1993 Western “Tombstone,” and used to drive his bandmates nuts watching it on the tour bus every night, quoting all the lines. So for Dylan’s birthday, Kilmer had recorded himself singing “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” in the florid, honeysuckle drawl he’d used to play Doc Holliday. The accent apparently cracks Dylan up like crazy, which is why Kilmer busted it out again when acting opposite his royal Bobness in the singer’s pseudonymously scripted 2003 dystopian satire “Masked and Anonymous.” (If you look closely, you can catch the otherwise Sphinx-like Dylan suppressing a giggle whenever Kilmer starts speaking.)
By the time I left, the publicist was trying to corral Kilmer for a lunch break, but the star had hurled himself to the floor, where he rolled around with the room service menu over his face, arms outstretched. “Don’t speak, just hold me,” he moaned. I got all the way to the elevator before I realized that I’d just spent half an hour talking about Bob Dylan with Jim Morrison.
I thought a lot about that bizarre interview day during “Val,” a wistful and often awfully sad autobiographical documentary culled from hundreds of hours of Kilmer’s home videos. He was one of those guys who videotaped everything, usually to the visible annoyance of his camera subjects. Kilmer is not doing well these days. Laid low by throat cancer, he can only speak by pushing a button on an apparatus in his trachea, the words escaping softly in a strangulated rasp. Constructed like one of the scrapbooks we see the star making from his old newspaper and magazine clippings, the movie drifts from past to present and back again, cutting to devastating effect from contemporary footage of this frail, enfeebled figure to movie memories of the golden god with that insolent smirk.
Kilmer may have looked like a Ken doll come to life, but this matinee idol always had the searching soul of a character actor, never happier than when burying himself in outsized accents and flights of Method madness. The youngest actor ever accepted to Juilliard at the time, our idealistic thespian got an early lesson in show business realities when he was demoted to the supporting cast of his Broadway debut after Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon big-footed him out of both leading roles. (The two appear in the film, impossibly young and fresh-faced, mooning Kilmer’s camera from what was supposed to have been his dressing room.) But movie stardom was all but inevitable for someone with Kilmer’s looks and talent. As was, perhaps, self-destruction.
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When Kilmer was cast opposite Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in 1995’s “Heat,” it was a sign of his acceptance as an heir apparent to the two acting titans. But after a disastrous turn as the Caped Crusader that same year, stories of the star’s bad behavior on film sets began to eclipse his formidable gifts. After directing him in ”Batman Forever,” the usually amiable Joel Schumacher famously quipped, “I’ll never work with Val Kilmer again,” swearing he’d cast someone else even if he was making “The Val Kilmer Story.” But the best burn was from film legend John Frankenheimer, brought in on salvage duty when Kilmer and co-star Marlon Brando were burning through directors on 1996’s tumultuous “The Island of Dr. Moreau” remake: “Will Rogers never met Val Kilmer.”
Directed by Leo Scott and Ting Poo, “Val” finds the actor candidly acknowledging that he’s often been his own worst enemy, with son Jack — who sounds eerily like his old man — reading a reflective voice-over narration. I personally wish there had been more about Kilmer’s career-defining performance as Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors,” in which he brought such movie star magnetism to the Lizard King’s antics that to this day whenever I watch footage of the actual Morrison I’m a little disappointed that he’s not more like Val Kilmer. Still, I suppose it’s nice for him to finally admit how unpleasant it must have been for his then-wife Joanne Whalley to put up with him wearing the same pair of leather pants for a year as a way of staying in character.
There’s some dishy behind-the-scenes footage in which Kilmer comes off quite poorly — an episode with an exasperated Frankenheimer is alone worth the price of admission — but it’s hard to muster much ill will when we keep seeing how far he’s fallen. These days, Kilmer travels the country selling autographs and posing for selfies on the convention circuit to pay off his massive debts. A crushing Comic-Con montage finds him signing “You can be my wingman anytime” for countless fans oblivious to his increasing physical discomfort, until the appearance ends with him vomiting into a bucket and being wheeled out of the hall with a blanket over his head.
But “Val” isn’t entirely a pity party. Clad in an abundance of turquoise jewelry common to men of his age who hail from the American Southwest, Kilmer retains an impish sense of humor even in his diminished condition. Doting on his children (daughter Mercedes lives next door), he appears to have found a peace that had eluded him during those tumultuous Hollywood years. Being Batman isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and Val Kilmer finally seems okay with that.