Kilmer all things to films and fans

Gathering: From flawed men to Batman, unsung actor disappears into his characters. But he is everywhere at Valfest.

August 12, 2000|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

He's starred in 27 films, some of them blockbusters. He's played Moses and Elvis, Doc Holliday and Batman. He bagged $9 million for his latest role in a major release, and no less a luminary than Nicole Kidman says he has "the best lips in the business."

Yet if you heard the name Val Kilmer, you might well be unable to summon a clear image to mind. He just might be America's most anonymous major star. "If there is an award for the most unsung leading actor of his generation," writes critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, "Kilmer should get it."

Call it fitting, then, that the only known celebration of all things Val takes place far from the glamorous film sets of Hollywood and attracts - until now, anyway - fewer fans than a ghost-town shootout. Last year's inaugural Val Kilmer Film Festival and Convention drew 12 devotees to Fairfax, Va., where they saw two films, swapped stories and gushed over their hero. The second annual Valfest, this weekend at the Holiday Inn Fair Oaks and University Mall Theatres in Fairfax, should also make up in ardor what it lacks in size.

"Very few people realize what a phenomenal actor Val is," says Fran Geswein, a festival organizer. "It doesn't hurt that he's nice to look at. When we get together, I'm sure we'll find a lot to talk about."

One topic will surely be Kilmer's range, which fest fans agree is both his strength and his liability. If Kilmer didn't play such a wide array of characters so believably, they say, he might be a household name.

"When you see a Tom Hanks movie," says Beth Hellmann, 44, an ex-English teacher who attended Valfest I, "Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks, the good-natured nice guy. Al Pacino is always Al Pacino. Val subjugates his personality to the character he's playing. You get something unique each time."

Adds Sheila Petri, 45, another festival organizer and an electrical engineer from Arlington, Va.: "His characters look and sound different from each other, and none of them sound like the Val Kilmer you hear and see in interviews. He's a real chameleon."

There's no doubt that Kilmer's roles vary greatly and that, unlike most major stars, he's willing to play the savory and the unsavory alike. In "The Doors" (1991) he brings to life dissolute rock star Jim Morrison, a man whose values Kilmer has said he finds deplorable. In "Thunderheart" (1992), he stars as an FBI agent who is part Native American - and who would likely have cuffed Morrison had he ever met the lead singer backstage.

He's the Caped Crusader in "Batman Forever" (1995), a solemn architect in "The Ghost and the Darkness" (1996), a drunken janitor in "Joe the King" (1999). But the very versatility that sets him apart, all agree, undermines his fame. "In movies as different as `Real Genius,' `Top Gun,' `Top Secret!' and `Billy the Kid,' " writes Ebert, "[Kilmer] has shown a range of characters so convincing it's likely most people, even now, don't realize they're looking at the same actor."

But Kilmer fans know that - and a whole lot more.

The main course at each fest is the two movies. Last year's were "The Doors" and "Thunderheart"; this year's offerings are "The Ghost and the Darkness" and the 1988 fantasy-adventure "Willow." But it's the convention that allows acolytes to worship most freely.

Last year's fans swapped photos, shared magazines and saw home-taped videos, but even that wasn't immersion enough. For instance, in "The Island of Dr. Moreau" (1996), Kilmer's character, Montgomery, wears a black-and-white beaded necklace; Petri made a replica, and attendees took turns trying it on. In a 1996 "Tonight Show" interview, Kilmer mentioned a cream liqueur called Amarula; at the fest, a flask was passed around and sampled. One conventioneer even brought an ostrich egg; her hero had held one in the 1998 documentary "Africa Unbottled." And today and tomorrow, fans will have a chance to try on a blue dress like the one Kilmer dons in "Willow."

"It's a great opportunity to get close to what Val does," says Hellmann.

But if variety is the Kilmer calling card, fans are fascinated by the unity their fest radiates. The lead characters in "The Doors" and "Thunderheart" could scarcely be more different, for example, but last year's fest-goers found a common thread. "There's a theme of Native American mysticism in both," says Hellmann. "There's a lot of evidence of spirituality in Val's work. When that came up, it triggered a great discussion."

Adds Petri: "It's wonderful to meet people who notice the same things you notice, who see the things you see." For that reason, organizers plan few formal activities. "Everybody really tends to just sit around talking," says Petri, "and looking at pictures of Val Kilmer."

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