Underrated#1: Val Kilmer in Tombstone

Val Kilmer’s turn in a random early 90s western was fucking fantastic, yet it received no Academy recognition and enjoys an unjustly low level of the modern day hype usually lavished unreservedly upon such a cult performance.

Dir: George P. Cosmatos
Original Release Date: 24 December 1993


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I’ve been meaning to fire up ILT’s brand new Underrated# series for quite some time now, but with the expansion of #SceneKid and emergence of TurningJapanese#, PerfAction#, and The Punch Up Podcast, it’s taken somewhat of a back seat during recent months. That was until recently, when I watched Tombstone for the first time. With the Oscars and its usual connotative arguments concerning what has and hasn’t been over or underrated now fast approaching, this random 1993 western seems appropriate a place as any to kick things off.

Starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer atop a generally splendid array of 80s movie folk, and directed, rather curiously, by George P. Cosmatos (of, erm, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra fame), Tombstone somehow existed beneath my radar for many a year, in spite of both my love for not only a good western, but also the vast majority of the cast. Whilst the overall rating the film received at the time (and that which it enjoys now – around the 7.5/10 mark) is pretty much spot on, for some unknown reason the production value of the picture was overlooked at the 1994 Academy Awards in categories that it would almost certainly receive a nomination for today (production and set design, costume design etc). However, the singular aspect that experienced the overall unfathomable miscarriage of justice in the underrating game that year was the performance of Val Kilmer as historical wild west figure Doc Holliday. Now, before I express a tide of man-love for Kilmer’s turn, I’ll first make it clear that I don’t think he should have won Best Supporting Actor (that should have been Ralph Fiennes – a separate debate altogether), but I do believe the fact that he failed to secure even a nomination ahead of, say, John Malkovich for In The Line of Fire, is a complete huckleberry of a travesty.

So what’s so darn great about Kilmer’s interpretation of Doc Holliday? Well, essentially everything; from his willingness to become the character in terms of look, posture, and legendary ability (whether it be pistol swinging, shooting, or piano playing), to his slick, consistently perfect delivery of some quite brilliant lines (Cowboy: “He’s so drunk he can’t hit nothing…in fact (to Holliday), you’re probably seeing double”. Holliday: “I have two guns…” *spins them in opposite fucking directions like a bullseye boss* “…one for each of ya”). Holliday could be gambling, shooting, or sweatily coughing up his tuberculosis while delicately perching a cigarette between finger and thumb; regardless, Kilmer projects the sort of dirty, tightly strung out Hollywood cool that is not only wonderful to witness, but also highly infectious. One need only ask my poor girlfriend, who now faces a response to each and every request to the stock tune of “I’m your huckleberry” 8). Even when fate catches up with Holliday (I won’t give away exactly what that means), his romantic philosophy remains, and it’s a testament to Kilmer’s almost loving perseverance that he made sure the performance remained absolutely straight throughout, despite the sometimes seemingly outlandish nature of the character.

It helps that virtually every relevant facet of the production appeared to benefit Kilmer’s part. He has by far the best dialogue in Kevin Jarre’s sometimes otherwise clunky script, and seems to have been subject to shots both more creative and interesting than those conducted when he’s not involved. This could of course have been a happy coincidence, as part of the reason it comes off that way no doubt stems simply from Kilmer’s tangibly towering portrayal of Holliday’s straight-faced mischief, witty rebuttal, and powerful wrath. Holliday holds the gaze of the lens with such a guilty ease that the audience is inevitably intercepted whenever he’s on screen. Having said that, director Cosmatos (or ghost director Kurt Russell – if you believe his later claim that he was just that) must have realised early on that Kilmer was on to something special, and worked around him rather then just with him. Indeed, Russell is rather wooden in comparison as Wyatt Earp, as he and Bill Paxton on the good guys’ side come across as little more than themselves – save for an admittedly fine pair of moustaches. The only near match for Kilmer is his opposite number in front of the camera, Cowboy Johnny Ringo (“You look like somebody just walked over your grave” – another absolute beast in terms of both line and delivery), played with delicious rage-turned-fear by 80s action stalwart Michael Biehn.

Finally, to provide a little further modern day context, I was blown away not only by Kilmer (literally) killing it on screen, but also at how blown away I was at how blown away I was (aye, ‘twas deliberate). Most half serious film fans can of course name a fair few instances in which an actor has completely dominated each and every frame of a particular reel. At the same time however, the same fans will tell you that to be completely caught off guard by such a performance is a rarity these days. What I mean by that is, in this age of YouTube, IMDb, and cinema generally being more popular than ever before, thus encouraging unprecedented word of mouth (a good thing, to be fair), the likelihood of going into a film one hundred percent unaware of an apparent great performance, and therefore being unprepared for it, is as surprising as it is welcome. Kilmer as Holliday is the absolute definition of this, and I implore the epic swathes of movie-lovers yet to see Tombstone (another manner in which Kilmer’s underrated here – why oh why isn’t his showing brought up in related cinematic chat more often!?) to change that as soon as possible, simply to view, nay, to experience big Val.

Off the back of seeing the true Val Kilmer verbally and physically assault his way to what should have been an Academy Award nomination, the age old question surrounding Hollywood actors seemingly on the verge of mega stardom once again arose – just what the hell happened to him? Whilst Batman Forever no doubt played a significant role in denting his box office appeal – along with later weight fluctuations – part of the reason for Kilmer’s overnight disappearance from the A-list appears to have been Kilmer himself, in that he doesn’t seem to give much of a fuck about what he does, or what people think. This makes him so ideal for a type of Brando/Travolta-esque bastard of a comeback that it genuinely excites my childlike mind to think about it. Surely Tarantino, or any other director for that matter, must watch a film such as Tombstone now and then and think, hmm, it would be downright swell to mould Val Kilmer’s comeback… The talent may be dormant, but I’ll bet my life in a Holliday gun fight that it isn’t dead.

Now, say when.

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One thought on “Underrated#1: Val Kilmer in Tombstone

  1. You are not alone. Tough to conceive another ‘Doc Holliday’ other than him. Not impossible though, Jack’s Joker has been reinvented quite brilliantly since – but yeah – his portrayal is pristine.

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