Staunch Characters pays tribute to great character actors by singling out a specific performance that illustrates their mastery.
Becoming a movie star is the worst thing that could have happened to Val Kilmer because it obscured his real strengths as a character actor. Kilmer made an auspicious start with the one-two punch of Top Secret! and Real Genius. The former showed Kilmer had the movie-star magnetism to play an off-brand Elvis Presley and the comic chops and self-deprecation to play against his movie-star looks and be a total goofball. Real Genius was another instance where a lead role doubled as a brilliant character part. From the vantage point of 2015, it’s easy to see a lot of Kilmer in the character he played in Real Genius: a genius who actively avoids the conventional trappings of success and uses his peculiar gifts as perversely and pointlessly as possible.
Kilmer was just too good-looking to keep playing the lead goofball indefinitely; he’s a hell of a lot more compelling than Tom Cruise in Top Gun (and arguably an even more heroic and sympathetic character). Throughout the ’80s and ’90s there seemed to be a tug of war between the bankable movie star studios wanted Kilmer to be and the late-period Marlon Brando (think post-Apocalypse Now) Kilmer wanted to become. The batshit-insane Kilmer of The Island Of Dr. Moreau, where Kilmer actually has the brass-iron balls to try to out-crazy Brando long after he’d plunged headfirst into the deepest recesses of insanity, is a purer reflection of Kilmer as an actor than his sleepwalking turn in Batman Forever.
Not long before Batman Forever, Kilmer appeared in the 1993 film Tombstone, which recounts the story of the friendship between Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell, who also reportedly directed most of the film without credit), the personification of law in the Wild West, and Doc Holliday (Kilmer), a fascinatingly ambiguous figure who falls somewhere between good and evil, the straight and narrow path and a purposefully crooked existence. For a ham like Kilmer, Holliday is pretty much the perfect role. It afforded him the opportunity to dramatically transform his physical appearance by losing 30 pounds to play a man dying of tuberculosis. It also gave him a drawn-out death scene and, as if all that weren’t enough to fulfill the giddy fantasy of every Juilliard up-and-comer, Holliday is also a drunk, a gambler, and a degenerate dandy. Kilmer plays Holliday as a man whose imminent death has freed him from any responsibilities, his certain demise giving him an excuse to eschew anything resembling social proprieties. He’s death in its physical form, and Kilmer plays him as a man who’s found freedom in having nothing left to lose.
Kilmer’s Holliday wields sarcasm like a six-shooter, delighting in his own wit and verbosity. He’s a man of intellect in an illiterate world, a man who professes to be a cynic who cares about nothing but the pleasure of the moment. But like Han Solo in the Star Wars franchise or Rick in Casablanca, Holliday is secretly an idealist willing to lay down his life for his friends, even if that life isn’t going to last very long.
Kilmer takes an almost unseemly joy in the character’s arrogance, sinister wit, and eccentricities; it’s rare to see a character have so much fun dying a horrible death, complete with the telltale hack that, in movies like these, almost invariably signals that someone is not long for this world. Kilmer gets all the weirdest, almost avant-garde dialogue. (“I’m your huckleberry,” “You’re no daisy! You’re no daisy at all. Poor soul, you were just too high-strung.”) It’s almost as if he was in a much different, much weirder movie than everyone else and could barely keep himself from cackling with glee at how much fun he was having. There’s something almost effete about Holliday, but that doesn’t make him any less deadly; it merely acts as an effective disguise for his gifts as a gunman.
Kilmer’s movies tend not to hit theaters these days. In a sad sign of the times, he revisited this territory in 2012 when he played the much lesser role of Wyatt Earp—it’s always juicier to play the antihero than the hero—in 2012’s Wyatt Earp’s Revenge. Yet every once in while we’re treated to a glimpse of the brilliant character actor that could have been, like when he played a motivational speaker named “Val Kilmer” in Harmony Korine’s segment in an anthology called The Fourth Dimension. It’s not quite Doc Holliday, but it’s noteworthy for its fascinating weirdness.