Arc of an actor: ‘Val’ traces Kilmer’s rise to the peak of the film industry, continuing work after cancer

Val Kilmer in a scene from the documentary “Val.” (Courtesy of A24)

The actor Val Kilmer sits behind a table at a Comic Con in London, looking pale and unsteady. His voice has been reduced to a whispering rasp after tracheostomy surgery for throat cancer in 2015 – although the good news is, the surgery was successful – and he tries to smile gamely as fan after fan asks him to sign posters and photos of his Iceman character in “Top Gun,” always asking for the same caption: “You can be my wingman any time. Iceman.”

Kilmer signals he needs a break, and we see him vomiting into a trash can before he is wheeled out of the convention, with a blanket covering his face so nobody can see it’s Val Kilmer.

It’s a profoundly sad sequence in the fascinating and insightful and often beautifully moving documentary “Val” – and yet one has to admire Kilmer’s willingness to allow the cameras to keep on rolling, not to mention his candor as he acknowledges much of his income these days comes from attending events such as Comic Con, a screening of “Tombstone” in Texas, etc. Revisiting his long-ago prime could be viewed as the lowest thing an actor could do, Kilmer says, but when he interacts with fans who have genuine and abiding affection for him, he feels “grateful rather than humiliated.” (The meet-and-greet before the “Tombstone” screening is a much more uplifting experience than the Comic Con signing, as fans connect with Kilmer and tell him how much his work has meant to them.)

Val Kilmer played Batman and Jim Morrison and Doc Holliday and Iceman and Elvis Presley, and he was a standout in films such as “Real Genius” and “Heat” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and “The Salton Sea,” and he continues to act even after his surgery. (He’s reprising his Iceman character in “Top Gun: Maverick.”) He had the leading-man looks and the Juilliard School chops and the charisma to become one of the great movie stars of the latter part of the 20th century – but he never reached the heights of his “Top Gun” mate Tom Cruise. It’s been a roller-coaster career, with Kilmer constantly pegged as someone who is difficult to work with, who made some questionable career choices (he walked away from the “Batman” franchise), who was his own worst enemy.

Kilmer addresses all of that and much more in this documentary from Leo Scott and Ting Poo, who do a remarkable job of weaving together present-day footage of Kilmer with a gold mine of video footage shot by Kilmer himself, who was an early adopter of amateur video and took his cameras along everywhere he traveled. “I’ve kept everything,” Kilmer says, as we see him going through dozens upon dozens of boxes of videotape.

With Kilmer’s son Jack providing the voice-over narration of his father’s words, “Val” features home movies from Kilmer’s childhood in which Val and his two brothers made elaborate homemade spoofs of “Jaws” and other films on the family’s California ranch, which was formerly owned by Roy Rogers. When Val’s younger brother Wesley died after having an epileptic seizure in the family’s hot tub, Val was devastated and notes now, “Our family was never the same.”

Val Kilmer in a scene from the documentary “Val.” (Courtesy of A24)

Still in the grips of grief, the 18-year-old Kilmer left California for Juilliard. From this point on, Kilmer’s camera is omnipresent, whether he’s backstage with fellow hotshots Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon, goofing around with his buddy Rick Rossovich (who played Slider) on the set of “Top Gun,” bantering with Kurt Russell while making “Tombstone,” or getting married to his “Willow” co-star Joanne Whalley, the mother of his children, Jack and Mercedes. We see Kilmer’s homemade and quite sophisticated audition tapes for “Full Metal Jacket” and “Goodfellas” and “The Doors,” and while he wasn’t cast in the former two films, he delivered a performance for the ages in Oliver Stone’s trippy biopic.

Kilmer talks about how the suit in “Batman Forever” was so constraining he could barely move in it and couldn’t hear what the other actors were saying. He resigned himself to just showing up and standing for as long as he could, while the likes of Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey chewed up the scenery. We also see some bizarre footage shot during the making of the ill-fated “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” in which Kilmer comes across a morbidly obese Marlon Brando on a hammock, and Brando implores him to “give us a shove” so he can keep on swinging back and forth.

Despite his health problems and a career that carried as many setbacks as triumphs, Kilmer comes across as a self-deprecating, thoughtful, likable and almost jovial figure with a wicked sense of humor and a deep appreciation of artists, writers, poets, actors and thinkers. (He’s been obsessed with Mark Twain much of his life and played him in a one-man show, “Citizen Twain.”) Most heartwarming of all are the moments when we see him with son Jack and daughter Mercedes, who clearly adore their father, and he lights up whenever he’s in their presence. Those relationships are Kilmer’s greatest and lasting legacy.

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