“Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. ~John Lennon
Tonight I finally had a chance to watch a movie I have been curious about for a while. It’s a documentary about Val Kilmer, simply titled Val. The film is a combination of video Kilmer shot himself, long before the days of camera phones during the time when memories were recorded on large, clunky video recorders with footage that ended up on large, clunky VHS tapes, and more recent footage taken of him. Kilmer had a bout with throat cancer from 2015 to 2017. Chemotherapy and two tracheotomies stole his voice and left him with a hole in his throat through which he breathes and feeds himself. It’s sobering to watch the juxtaposition in footage between a handsome, winsome leading man and a man with tracheostomy tube who now travels the country to sign autographs at events like Comic Con. It’s a stark reminder of how life works.
Kilmer is eight years older than I am, and I had a crush on him from his first feature film, Top Secret, in 1984 when I was 16. He had an on-screen charisma that came at me like a freight train. After Top Secret, I went to see him in Real Genius, a film I have seen at least a dozen times now and still adore. I saw Top Gun because he was in it (I never cared much for Tom Cruise, always preferring blond men) and then I went to see him in Willow, The Doors, Tombstone, and Batman Forever. There was something about him, a depth that you don’t often see in handsome, Hollywood-leading-man types. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it was there.
Watching Val, I found that depth again. At times it was hard to tell if the recent footage of him was him being himself and living his life with a camera recording it or him playing a character, a Hollywood star who survives cancer only to realize he’s lost the only career he ever wanted. Whether or not he was a “difficult” actor because he cared about the craft of acting and telling a story is up for debate, but I get the sense from the film that Val’s perfectionism regarding his chosen profession likely ruffled feathers. After Batman Forever, a film that was a big commercial success, he turned down the title role in the sequel because his experience in the first film, being cramped and miserable in a suit that barely allows you to stand or move without help, much less hear or breathe well, was simply not an opportunity with growth potential. But, you don’t get to turn down a request to reprise your role as Batman without fallout.
I don’t want to say anything else about Val himself or the film because I believe art is best left to be interpreted by each individual their own way. What I can say is that the real life struggles of the man behind the actor are profound and, in many ways, universal. As I watched, I was struck by how ephemeral it all is. How we think we have all the time in the world for our passions, our work, our loves, our family, and our own self-development and growth, when we have no control at all over any of it. Ever. One day you’re creating what you hope will be the pinnacle of your life’s work. The next, you grapple with the knowledge it’s gone and can never be resurrected.
We don’t have all the time in the world to live out our dreams. Each day we have that day and nothing more. It’s what we do in the aftermath of when our dreams fall apart that matters. Val founded a creative studio in Los Angeles and created a film about his life thus far. He may have difficulty speaking aloud and being understood, but I suspect he is not finished trying to express himself through art.