Val – A Fascinating Glimpse Into the Life of an Incredibly Intense Actor

Dept. of Truth and Illusion


How do you sum up a life? If you had captured most of your life on film, given 1 hour 49 minutes, what would you choose to share with the world? This is the question at the heart of Val, the documentary on Val Kilmer’s life and career, directed by editors Ting Poo and Leo Scott, but with cinematography by Kilmer himself.

Long, long before TikTok or Youtube, Kilmer was filming his life, but doing very little with the footage except storing it. Until now. 

So what does Val Kilmer, the actor who brought us Iceman, Jim Morrison, Batman (Forever Edition), and Doc Holliday, and who developed a reputation as being “difficult” along the way, choose to say with all this footage?

First, it’s worth understanding why he’s saying it now. After surviving throat cancer in 2017, Kilmer had a tracheostomy. With a hole in his throat that he has to plug with a finger to talk, his voice may never be the same again (he’s still recovering). Robbed of one of the actor’s greatest tools, when it has become “hard to talk and be understood,” Kilmer reflects on his life from his days making home movies with his aspiring director brother Wesley, to his one man show as Mark Twain before his cancer diagnosis, in a search of understanding of a different kind.

It’s a staggering feat of archiving that includes the first time he got a laugh on stage, the home movies he made with Wesely, and behind the scenes footage from almost every film he’s ever worked on (nothing from The Love Guru, sorry). 

A Story About My Life That Is Also Not My Life

Kilmer doesn’t go out of his way to settle old feuds, and appears to hold those he’s supposed to have had spats with, in high regard (like Toms Cruise and Sizemore). Rather than debunk rumours or address why he gained a reputation as difficult head on, Kilmer tries to show where he’s coming from: an, at times, painfully serious actor.

He may have played Batman and Doc Holliday, but Val reminds us that Kilmer was the youngest student accepted to acting at Julliard. That he gained his first taste of success writing and acting in a play created with his classmates, “How it All Began,” a review of which in the New York Times describes him an “amiable but mechanical actor.”

In voiceover, handled by his son Jack, Kilmer narrates his career, with plenty of references to his life, both at the time, and in goofy modern day inserts with his son.

It’s not a vanity project. Val doesn’t shy away from the hard times. Wesley’s tragic passing at a young age, his relationship with Joanne Whalley, from fan, to husband, to ex-husband. But he doesn’t dwell on darkness.

Val puts parts of Kilmer’s life on display with distressing honesty. Throughout the documentary, he affirms that he only wanted to do his best by the material. It goes unsaid that if that price to be paid was his working relationships, his marriage, or his reputation, it was price he seemed fine paying. At the time at least.

The Iceman Cometh

The gory details of his most famous spats are frustratingly absent at times though. The projects where Kilmer’s reputation was solidified, fly past with a frustrating speed. The Island Of Dr. Moreau, The Ghost and The Darkness, and Red Planet are addressed in intriguing snippets only. (For more details on what happened on The Island of Dr. Moreau, and the original director Richard Stanley, check out the documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau)

At one point in footage from Red Planet he says, “I’m frustrated because what I have to do isn’t getting filmed ’cause the director isn’t able to bring it out.” He later laments with Tom Sizemore, “[these days ] if you know how to act you could be a problem actor.” It hardly sounds like the basis for a good working relationship.

Throughout Val, however, it becomes clear how an actor that created his own incredibly over the top audition tapes for Full Metal Jacket, where he fired off real guns and tried on various voices for characters, that he then hand delivered by flying 6,000 miles to London, might have rubbed some people up the wrong way.  

Hidden Delights

Any concern over the lack of detail here is more than made up for by seeing Iceman (Kilmer) and Slider (Rick Rossovich) goofing around behind the scenes on Top Gun. By witnessing the glory of Anthony Edwards’ “80s ball huggers,” or Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn mooning the camera in the dressing room for The Slab Boys. Whatever issues he may have had with Marlon Brando on Moreau, seem to drift away as Kilmer gently rocks Marlon Brando in a giant hammock.

Kilmer doesn’t veer away from the painful in his personal life either. He includes fraught calls with former wife Joanne Whalley over the custody of their children, and voices his concerns over having to resort to signing autographs at comic-con and attending Tombstone conventions to make money. But then he brings silly string to a funeral…

Val, may not be as brutally honest as some would like, but then again, what would we choose to share with the world about our lives? It’s impossible for Val, or even a massive 72 part documentary series to capture the entirety of Kilmer’s life, or anyone else’s. The glimpse we get here makes for an absolutely fascinating watch.

Val is currently streaming on available on Amazon Prime in the U.S.

Irish Film lover lost in Malaysia. Co-host of Malaysia's longest running podcast (movie related or otherwise ) McYapandFries and frequent cryer in movies. Ask me about "The Ice Pirates"

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