' ' Cinema Romantico: The Voice of Val Kilmer: A Celebration

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Voice of Val Kilmer: A Celebration

I just finished reading Val Kilmer’s memoir “I’m Your Huckleberry.” As Kilmer revealed in the run-up to his memoir’s release, he was diagnosed with throat cancer several years ago, underwent a tracheostomy and “no longer sounds like Val Kilmer,” as the inestimable Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote in her NYT profile of the actor earlier this year. “He hasn’t since his tracheostomy. He can still squeeze air up through his windpipe, however, and past the hole that was cut into his throat and the tracheostomy tube, in a way that makes him somewhat understood — not very, but somewhat. The sound is something between a squeak and a voiceless roar.” Kilmer acknowledges this straight away in his memoir, deeming the sound of his voice as akin to Marlon Brando’s “after downing several bottles of tequila.” “Speaking,” Kilmer writes, “once my joy and lifeblood, is now completely out of my control.” The book can be evasive in its tendency toward woo-woo, but that line…that line broke my heart. I realized a celebration of Val Kilmer’s voice was in order.

When you begin with Kilmer’s voice... No. Strike that. When I begin with Kilmer’s voice, I am hard pressed to begin anywhere else but “Top Gun.” His supporting role as fighter pilot extraordinaire Iceman, antagonist to Tom Cruise’s Maverick, is brief yet never stopped looming large because of the eccentricities Kilmer brought to the part. Some of those were physical, yes, like the pen twirling demonstration, fiddling with his wristwatch, or that puffed-up peacockish way he would have Iceman confront Maverick. But he was also pleasingly off-center in his dialogue, like trying to console Maverick after his best buddy Goose has died. “I’m sorry about Goose,” he said before inhaling through his nose in this strange but strangely affecting way like a jock who’s never had to be nice trying to learn what sympathy is on the fly. “Everybody liked him.”

Just as good, though, is the monologue about his rival delivered to his rival: “It’s not your flying, it’s your attitude. The enemy’s dangerous, but right now you’re worse. Dangerous and foolish. You may not like who’s flying with you, but whose side are you on?” It’s always sounded so incredible to me because Kilmer gives it a prudish ring, like he’s a schoolteacher, but like he’s a schoolteacher at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, not at Naval Weapons Fighter School in Miramar. And that’s why even though the scene presents him as a conformist to Maverick’s dissident, he still sounds cool. It’s a trick only Kilmer could pull. It’s that voice I read most of “I’m Your Huckleberry” in. (The most spiritually gooey parts I read in Kilmer’s voice from “The Saint” where he’s pretending to be a South African artist which Hollywood.com has called the worst movie accent which is why it appears in parentheses.)

There is a patented pompousness to Kilmer’s Iceman voice that pops up in other roles, like “True Romance” where he is playing a ghostly vision of Elvis giving guidance to Christian Slater’s. Kilmer is not doing an impression, exactly, more a precursor to Michael Shannon’s work a couple decades later in “Elvis & Nixon” though Shannon was spotlighting the King’s late period weariness while Kilmer is highlighting Presley’s King Creole cool. Still, it’s even a little more than that. “I’ve always liked you, Clarence,” he says a couple times like the world’s most fab enabler. In “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”, meanwhile, Shane Black’s 2005 action comedy, the dialogue, as is typical with Black, requires precision and Kilmer is up to the task, rendering tongue-twisters — “My two-thousand dollar ceramic Vektor my mother got me as a special gift you threw in the lake next to the car.” — with the cockiest of ease. And in “Alexander”, as Philip II of Macedon, he mostly communicates in these vainglorious bursts that make you believe it when another character councils the eponymous Alex to ignore his dad: “‘Tis the wine talking.” Yeah, it is.

If in those roles Kilmer was accentuating the verbal style, in his first movie role, 1984’s Team ZAZ comedy “Top Secret!”, he stripped away style completely. As an Elvis-like touring singer caught up in the world of international intrigue, his love interest asks him what his name, Nick, means. “Oh, nothing,” he says. “My dad thought of it while he was shaving.” If Leslie Nielsen made this movies famous by reciting similar deadpan dialogue with an alternating grave or self-impressed air, Kilmer gives it an entirely innocent ring.

In a strange way, his work there foreshadowed his turn in “Heat”, mostly opposite former Heavyweight Champion of the World Robert DeNiro. Kilmer was not trying to one-up his scene partner, like co-star Al Pacino’s famously amplified turn, only strategically blowing his stack, like in his first scene opposite her eminence, Ashley Judd. Otherwise, Kilmer is calm and cool in a way befitting the character and his lifestyle. When DeNiro’s character asks him if he really loves Judd’s Charlene, the way Kilmer replies “For me the sun rises and sets with her, man” does not sound anything like that line as written would suggest. Kilmer strips it of any and all purple excess; he is merely stating a fact. Nine years later in “Spartan” he does something similar in a somewhat different way. That was a David Mamet movie and, as everyone knows, Mamet dialogue is to be spoken so specifically it has its own name: Mametspeak. It’s not supposed to sound like real life. But Kilmer...man, Kilmer makes Mametspeak sound like real life. How did he do that?

If there was a role where Kilmer eschewed real life to truly evince a heightened rhythmic sort of speaking tone, it was “Tombstone.” A subplot there involves a traveling theatre troupe but, let us be clear, Doc Holliday is giving the real performance. In the famous scene where Doc first confronts Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn), the way Kilmer says “The deadliest pistoleer since Wild Bill, they say,” has a sing-song quality. Ostensibly he’s speaking to his ladyfriend, Big Nose Kate, though really he’s speaking to the whole saloon, playing his role. And though Johnny Ringo counters “Yeah, you look it” after Doc claims to be in his prime, the darkly comic way Kilmer says it is tantamount to stepping on Biehn’s comeback.

The sequence ends, of course, with Doc mocking Johnny Ringo’s showy display of gunspinning by twirling his tin cup. It’s hysterical, most definitely, but it also hardly matters. By that point, in just a few lines, with just a few words, Doc Holliday, Val Kilmer, has stolen the show.

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