I thought Val Kilmer was a superhero from the first time I laid eyes on him. He was my first big-screen Batman, stirring some note of excitement in my soul that had remained untroubled by Adam West’s shark-repellent-bat-spray-wielding TV version. I was nine years old when Batman Forever arrived in cinemas, which was probably exactly the right age to be awed by its schlocky, larger-than-life charms. There was Tommy Lee Jones, seething as the terrifying Two-Face, Jim Carrey stealing scenes as the demented Riddler, and, at the heart of it all, there was Val himself, a superhero who looked like a matinee idol. At least he did when you could see his face. As Kilmer once remarked to the Orlando Sentinel: “Really, in that Batsuit, it wasn’t so much about acting except with your nostrils.”
At the time, it would never even have occurred to me that Kilmer wasn’t having the time of his life strutting around in black rubber and flaring his nostrils at Nicole Kidman. In Leo Scott and Ting Po’s new documentary Val, which was born out of thousands of hours of home video and premiered at Cannes this week to positive reviews, he reveals that starring in Joel Schumacher’s comic book romp left him feeling like little more than a tiny cog in a giant machine. He had always seen himself making high art – he went to Juilliard after all – and years earlier had turned up his nose at Top Gun’s “silly script”, before being contractually obliged to play Iceman. He had no such obligation with Batman, though, so he turned down reprising the role for Batman and Robin, passing the poisoned cape to George Clooney, and made The Saint instead.
If, by some unlikely turn of events, I had been a child career adviser to Kilmer at this point, I’d have told him to make exactly that move. The Saint was even cooler than Batman. Based on a literary series by Leslie Charteris, The Saint had already been turned into a TV show in the Sixties starring Roger Moore, so naturally it was expected to provide Kilmer with his James Bond role. Here was a different type of superhero for him to embody: suave, sophisticated and with the top half of his face entirely unobscured.
Things did not work out as planned. Kilmer’s Simon Templar is apparently a master of disguise, but the outlandish costumes and not-great accents just don’t really work in the context of a film trying to play things straight. (It didn’t help that Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery came out in the same year, 1997, spoofing the sorts of films The Saint was indebted to and making it appear even more old-hat by comparison.) What had once been talked about as Kilmer’s chance for his own globe-trotting franchise turned out to be his final appearance as a leading man.
He would still do great work – notably in Shane Black’s superb black comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005, in which sparks fly whenever he verbally spars with co-star Robert Downey Jnr – but some of his drive had clearly left him. Kilmer had built a reputation for being prepared to go further for a role than any other actor working. That reputation was waning.
A couple of years ago, I spoke to Oliver Stone about casting Kilmer as Jim Morrison in 1991’s The Doors. “He chased me down,” Stone told me. “He’d wanted to be in Platoon but he was impossible. During the auditions he was so out there. He was sort of eccentric. There are a lot of eccentric actors, but he was really out there. He did a strange audition for Elias [the character eventually played by Willem Dafoe]. He shot his own audition. He was lying on a table doing his kind of, you know, Jim Morrison imitation. It wasn’t right at all for that movie, because he wasn’t military. Then when The Doors happened, again he popped up in my life and he’d already prepared a tape.”
Kilmer’s portrayal of Morrison is one of the most remarkable performances of his career. Not only does he pull off looking like the Lizard King, he even sounds exactly like him – Stone estimated that of the Doors songs on the film’s soundtrack, 40 per cent of the vocals are Morrison’s while 60 per cent are Kilmer’s. Stone also recalled that, true to his recalcitrant reputation, Kilmer proved difficult to work with. “Of course Val, being of an extravagant mentality, would melodramatise his fatigue [from singing],” remembered Stone. “That drove everyone a little bit crazy. He had so many massages. The massage bill on that film was enormous. $20,000, at least, in massages. For a big guy, and strong-looking, he wasn’t that strong. He started looking tired.”
By 2014, Kilmer’s film career had taken a back seat to his fanboy-ish love of Mark Twain. While on tour with his one-man show, Citizen Twain, in Nashville, he found a huge lump in his throat. He could barely swallow. He was diagnosed with throat cancer and went through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The cancer ravaged his vocal cords and stole his voice, leaving him speaking, breathing and eating through a tracheostomy tube. “The sound is something between a squeak and a voiceless roar,” observed New York Times journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner when she interviewed Kilmer last year. “He says the fact that I can understand him is a result of the endless vocal exercises that he was trained to do when he went to Juilliard after high school, that he was taught to work his voice ‘like it was a trumpet’.”
It would have been easy for Kilmer to retreat from public view at this point. He has blockbuster money, after all. But even after everything he’s been through, he is still making films, still telling stories, and still pushing himself out there. He maintains HelMel, an art gallery and studio in Hollywood. He remains devoted to his dream of bringing his version of a Mark Twain biopic to the big screen. With Val, he has found a way to open up about his life, his victories and his defeats despite cancer’s cruel attempts to rob him of his voice. If that’s not a superhero, I don’t know what is.
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