ALISON BOSHOFF: Redemption of the superhero sinner Val Kilmer

Redemption of the superhero sinner: He was the Batman star labelled ‘psychotic’ whose celebrity marriage collapsed. Now, as he uses a voice box after throat cancer, a touching documentary on Val Kilmer’s life is electrifying Cannes, writes ALISON BOSHOFF

Mesmerising as Jim Morrison in The Doors, unforgettably macho alongside Tom Cruise in Top Gun, and frequently underrated as a stone-faced Batman — a role he hated — few actors are as intriguing as Val Kilmer.

Reviews of his off-screen behaviour and character are almost universally scathing. Joel Schumacher, who directed Kilmer in Batman Forever, called him ‘psychotic’ and the most disturbed person he had ever met.

The actor is said to have had ‘anger issues’ after being served with divorce papers on the set of The Island Of Dr. Moreau. The film version of H.G. Wells’s story was already beset by problems with bad weather and a skyrocketing budget and left director John Frankenheimer exhausted: ‘I will never climb Mount Everest and I will never work with Val Kilmer again,’ he said when the film had wrapped.

Few actors are as intriguing as Val Kilmer, at times both mesmerising and challenging off screen (pictured in 2019) 

The divorce papers came from Joanne Whalley, his British actress wife who twice took him to court. 

Their bitter divorce — conducted while Kilmer was romancing model Cindy Crawford — saw him accused of dallying with a pizza waitress and failing to provide a home for their children.

Yet those same children — Mercedes, 29, and Jack, 26 — were at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday proudly promoting Val, a documentary about Kilmer’s life and times which they co-produced for Amazon Prime.

The film features home movies shot by the 61-year-old actor over four decades. Kilmer speaks frankly about his life and career. 

Movingly, he appears speaking through a voice box, the result of throat cancer, which was diagnosed in 2015.

Joel Schumacher, who directed Kilmer in Batman Forever, called him ‘psychotic’ and the most disturbed person he had ever met

Kilmer initially kept his illness private and more or less disappeared from the Hollywood scene. Looking puffy and speaking in a manner described by the New York Times as ‘something between a squeak and a voiceless roar’, he tries to confront his demons. Industry bible Variety called it a ‘heartfelt portrait, which captures Kilmer’s talent, intelligence, and gift for self-sabotage’. Though its reviewer adds that Kilmer now resembles a ‘broken-down relic of himself’.

The privately educated son of a wealthy Arizona landowner, it’s fair to say that Val Kilmer has always been high maintenance.

A method actor par excellence, legend has it that aged 12 he walked out of the filming of a burger advert, saying that he couldn’t find his character’s motivation.

That Val Kilmer seems worlds away from the sometimes humble, spiritual man seen in the new film, who weeps as he talks about his life and illness. Raised a Christian Scientist, Kilmer cleaves to the religion, which is known for its controversial practice of spiritual healing.

Kilmer spent a year living almost wholly as Jim Morrison, the lead singer of The Doors, for the eponymous film

The cancer has taken a terrible toll. Some of Kilmer’s contributions are subtitled as his voice is too hoarse to be easily understood. At other times, his son Jack narrates his father’s words. ‘I’ve lived a magical life and I’ve captured quite a bit of it,’ says Kilmer, who made videos both at home and on movie sets.

Many viewers have shared how moved they have been by the film’s trailer on social media (the film itself will be released on Amazon on August 6). Kilmer talks frankly about the great tragedy that shaped his life, the death of his brother Wesley — who had an epileptic fit in a Jacuzzi and drowned, aged 15. ‘Our family was never the same again,’ Kilmer says. He was left ‘raw with grief’. The Kilmers lived on a huge ranch in California, once the home of actor Roy Rogers. Wesley would direct his siblings in home movie spoofs of cinema hits, including Jaws.

Director Leo Scott says that Wesley was ‘really a budding genius director who probably could have gone on to be one of the greats’. Instead, aged 17, it was Val who set off to New York to study drama at the famous Juilliard School.

The actor is said to have had ‘anger issues’ after being served with divorce papers on the set of The Island Of Dr. Moreau

The new documentary shows him joking around backstage with contemporaries Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon during a 1983 Broadway production of The Slab Boys. He also appeared in As You Like It in Minneapolis with Patti LuPone. After that, it wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling and launched Kilmer’s career as an A-lister.

His first success came with the 1984 film Top Secret! — a spoof spy comedy, which led to a role in the hit action film Top Gun in 1986, alongside Tom Cruise. Director Tony Scott was ‘obsessed’ by Kilmer’s chiselled intensity as Iceman, the fighter pilot vying with Cruise’s Maverick to be called the best of the best.

The role made Kilmer an instant heart-throb: ‘For the rest of my life I will be called Iceman by every pilot at every airport I ever go to,’ he says in the new film.

Behind the scenes, there was talk that the cast was split into Team Maverick and Team Iceman factions, and he recalled getting the competitive Cruise to do a scavenger hunt for a bottle of champagne. Ever the method actor, Kilmer spent hours puzzling over Iceman’s family and past — a rather serious approach to a popcorn film.

His first success came with the 1984 film Top Secret! — a spoof spy comedy, which led to a role in the hit action film Top Gun in 1986, alongside Tom Cruise

Now he signs merchandise at fan conventions and has accepted an invitation to be in the forthcoming sequel, in which Iceman and Maverick are friends. It’s due to be released this November.

Val includes fascinating footage of the audition tapes Kilmer made to pitch himself to directors. Among them was Oliver Stone, directing The Doors. ‘Not playing Jim [Morrison] was not an option,’ Kilmer says. Kilmer spent a year living almost wholly as Morrison, the band’s lead singer. He tells the documentary that it is a part of what went wrong between himself and Joanne Whalley — and that this was ‘total hell’ for her.

The couple met on the set of the fantasy film Willow and were married in 1988. They split up in 1996 soon after he completed Batman Forever. Kilmer hated making that film, feeling like a puppet in the famous Batman costume. He once recalled being on set when financier Warren Buffett and his grandkids came by to ‘see Batman’. Kilmer realised that they only wanted to try on the mask and ride in the Batmobile — and that the character was just a cipher. ‘There is no Batman,’ he said.

A method actor par excellence, legend has it that aged 12 he walked out of the filming of a burger advert, saying that he couldn’t find his character’s motivation

It was while on a promotional tour for the film that Whalley announced she was divorcing him. Son Jack was only a month old. Whalley had suspected Kilmer of cheating on her for more than a year.

He says she announced the split on TV. ‘I was visiting Marlon Brando in Ireland, and I turned on CNN and found out my wife had filed for divorce,’ he recalled in 2011.

‘She took the kids and moved to a different state. I guess that counts as being dumped. You just don’t understand humility until you have children and get divorced. I was very hurt and very angry and so was she. But when kids are involved, you either become friends with respect or you become mortal enemies.’

In 1996 there was a fight over money, with Whalley asking for £330,000 to buy a house for herself, Mercedes and Jack. Whalley, who made her name in TV’s The Singing Detective, told the court: ‘Since Val will have earned some £6,600,000 by the end of February his refusal to help cannot be for financial reasons.’

There was further court action 15 years later when Whalley said Kilmer was failing to keep up a reported £16,000 a month in child support.

Court documents revealed she had taken out a charge against his New Mexico ranch, meaning he could not sell it. By now he was ‘radioactive’ in Hollywood.

Joanne Whalley divorced Kilmer (pictured together in 1996) after she suspected him of cheating on her for more than a year

The Island Of Dr. Moreau, which starred Brando, was a disaster and tales from the set were hair-raising. Made in North Queensland, Australia, Kilmer was under great stress with the divorce and it was said he would refuse to come out of his trailer for hours on end.

His career stalled in the 2000s, and as his weight ballooned, lead roles dried up. Not that Kilmer seemed to care. He told an interviewer of his years of fame: ‘It was all silly to me. I’d been preparing to do Hamlet for ten years.’

Over the past two decades he developed a fascination with author Mark Twain, poetry and art. He spent years working on a one-man show about Twain and Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. He was touring with the show when he found he had trouble swallowing. A doctor told him it was throat cancer.

As a Christian Scientist, the answer was to ‘pray away the fear’ so that the body would no longer ‘manifest’ the illness. The faith holds that the illness is ‘the suggestion of cancer’ rather than a fact. Eventually he accepted treatment in the face of ‘profound’ persuasion from his family, who are not Christian Scientists.

Mercedes, 29, and Jack, 26 were at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday proudly promoting Val (pictured together)

He told an interviewer last year: ‘I would’ve had to go away, and I just didn’t want to be without them.’

Surgery was followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy. In 2016 Michael Douglas, who survived oral cancer, mentioned that Kilmer was also suffering: Kilmer wrote a post on Facebook saying he had ‘no cancer whatsoever’.

He said last year: ‘When they asked me, I didn’t have cancer. It was a bit like, ‘Do you have a broken bone?’ And if you broke it in high school, you would say no.’

He added: ‘I prayed, and that was my form of treatment.’

In Cannes this week he said: ‘I was trained as a stage actor — I saw myself that way and I still do. But I love film. The business works a certain way; sometimes I did it well, sometimes I did not.

‘I’ve always had an opinion about the stories we were telling and this often led to a healthy amount of creative tension.

‘But things aren’t always adversarial. I’ve had wonderful collaborations with filmmakers.

‘I’ve always approached what I do very seriously and I understand that sometimes that’s perceived as being difficult,’ he added. ‘Life is a spiritual journey and my goal is to live in the moment. Being present-minded has taken me to places of the extreme, both light and dark.’

As he says in the film: ‘I have behaved bravely, bizarrely to some … I see myself as a sensitive, intelligent human being, but with the soul of a clown.’

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