Val Kilmer, “I’m Your Huckleberry” (2020) (read by Will Forte, George Newbern, and Mare Winningham) – Well, here ends my experiment in “nonfiction beach read audiobooks,” on the last day of August. The first one (the one about the New Hampshire libertarians and the bears) was pretty bad, the next two, Jia Tolentino’s essays and this memoirs by actor Val Kilmer, were pretty decent. Kilmer’s memoirs especially I could see reading on a beach, if I were a big beachgoer. I always liked Val Kilmer, as long as I’ve known about actors. He seemed cooler than the other action stars of his era. Him being in “Heat” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” favorites of my twenties, surely helped too. I also love his turn in “MacGruber,” which weirdly enough doesn’t come up in this book even though co-star Will Forte reads part of the book!
Kilmer was a Southern California brat who lived one of those charmed existences that scarcely seem real, that’s even got tragedies in it — a beloved brother dying young, issues with his dad — that grant the whole thing gravitas. He was, to put it simply, extraordinarily hot, charismatic, and pretty talented too, being the youngest actor admitted to Juilliard (or “the Juilliard” as he insists on calling it) at the time. He lived, in his own account at least, that SoCal ubermensch child of “nature” (that environment is about as “natural” as the phone I’m typing this on, but whatever) life, wandering the hills and beaches reading poetry, doing daredevil stuff with mountains and cars, loving girls and rock music, acting and making art. He depicts himself as an artsy rebel genius at Juilliard who wants to do “real” theater until Cher (ten or so years his senior) sweeps him off his feet and to a Hollywood film career, which is pretty hot shit for about ten or fifteen years.
This could easily be obnoxious but I found it charming. Kilmer’s a good storyteller and has a way with words (studying Mark Twain for the last twenty years probably helped). He’s self-effacing without denying his talents, charm, wealth, or insane luck. California, along with the South, stands as a weird civilizational antipode to my own New England, shrugging and smirking where we (and Southerners!) insist and glower. It’s not my way but I don’t read to have me mirrored back. That’s good, because Kilmer and I are pretty different, and being me I put a fair amount of that down to history and geography though the other differences are obvious enough. In everything, Kilmer is an artist. I admire that- that’s not me. The closest I come is writing, and for those of you keeping score, I consider myself a craftsman and not an artist.
Kilmer also puts the love of god, of god-as-love, at the center of his personal universe. I knew he was a Christian Scientist. I didn’t know what a big deal it was to him before I listened to this book. In our current era of science-denial threatening the world, Christian Science can look sinister, but I don’t think it deserves opprobrium as a pernicious creed, even as my own belief system is pretty far from it. They take vaccines; when Kilmer got throat cancer in the aughts, he had surgery, chemotherapy, radiation (though he says he did it more to reassure his kids- as far as I’m concerned, he’s a grownup, and if he’s not contagious he can decide his own medical fate). In many respects, Christian Science seems to be the apex point of a certain kind of idealism (mostly in the classical sense of the word- the power of idea over matter). Idealism deserves respect as part of our intellectual heritage and as an inevitable element of any but the most extreme materialist outlooks- I consider myself a materialist, but not that materialist.
Anyway! The point is, Kilmer sees everything in his life, even his tragedies and setbacks, as part of a larger divine scheme. “It’s not that everything will turn out all right- it’s that everything is all right,” he says at one point. This hasn’t led him to the complacency that one usually associates with that belief- he cares about things and people. He just thinks his caring is part of a divine scheme that all adds up to something. On a storytelling level, this goes a couple of ways. He’s unashamed of his failings and pretty honest about them, but hasn’t got the sort of self-examination a more critical outlook might encourage.
I can’t really say he learned anything in the book. He romances women from Cher to Carly Simon (he seems to dig older women and doesn’t chase young girls, a decent indicator for a Hollywood type) to Cindy Crawford to Daryl Hannah to his wife, Joanne Whalley, and loses them all. There’s zero bitterness there, a certain degree of wistfulness and gentle self-blame over the situation, and he’s still friends with a lot of them. He doesn’t really seem to consider why all of this happened, or how maybe he could change to avoid it- he just loves love and seems genuinely enchanted, in an admirable way, by beautiful, powerful women. He doesn’t think that much about how he came to be considered a “difficult” actor to work with, why his career went into a slump, or why compulsively buying New Mexico land just before a massive recession was maybe a bad idea. He relates these failings honestly (he doesn’t think the “difficult” thing is quite fair, and it sounds like it might be overstated from what a lot of his directors said). He just doesn’t really interrogate them, because they’re just part of a divine universe that is basically good, and because things have more or less worked out for him. He can’t talk much anymore, no longer romances starlets, but is making art and living life. The end.
Well- who’s to say he has to learn anything? Didacticism is at least as much of an artificial trope as idealism or the idea that the universe is motivated by love. You can dispense with it if you can get away with it, and both in life and in memoirs, it appears Val Kilmer can (I do wonder if after a certain point, around the late nineties, it’s simply impossible for a big enough institution — a brand, a nation-state, a star — to truly go away no matter how screwed up and/or irrelevant they become… if so, glad the cut off included Kilmer). He tells a lot of amusing stories that become more amusing when you see them as coming from that American (and California) archetype, the innocent bullshitter: him and his idol, Marlon Brando, driving a director beyond the edge of reason on the set of “The Island of Doctor Moreau” with their weird acting ideas that, even if they were good (they probably were!) were probably impossible for the poor nose-picking schlub to apply, Kilmer backchatting a disrespectful Bob Dylan even as he professes his love for the overrated poet… all in all, a fun book. ****