Sugar Water: Break On Through (to Another Side of Acting)

Written by Current Events, Sugar Water

“A liar lies and a thief steals from you, but a hustler gives you something that you don’t mind parting with your money for. You’re entertained by the meal or the sex or the impression that something is going to happen. You’re given a sense of well-being….” —actor Val Kilmer describing porn star John Holmes, who he portrayed in 2003’s Wonderland

Val Kilmer wants to be the next governor of New Mexico. In fact, as he told the Associated Press in a recent interview, “If I run, I’m going to be the next governor.”

That’s the spirit! After all, Arnold Schwarzenegger had never held public office before he became governor of California in 2003, and by most accounts he’s done an admirable job in that post. But Schwarzenegger was always more of a movie star than an actor, and one reason he got to be such a huge international star was because he was a smart businessman (and, by extension, politician). He promoted action films like Total Recall and comedies like Twins with equal amounts of salesmanship and hyperbole, appearing on as many talk shows and in as many entertainment magazines as he could. He knew he wasn’t a great actor, and he knew his fans didn’t want to see him try anything Oscar-worthy, which is why the clip of him playing a pyrotechnic Hamlet in 1993’s Last Action Hero is the best joke in that otherwise misbegotten attempt at melding Schwarzenegger’s two favorite genres (“To be or not to be,” he says, before deciding on “not to be” and detonating the royal castle).

Kilmer, however, is much more of an actor than a movie star, despite matinee-idol looks and brief brushes with superstardom in blockbusters such as Top Gun (1986), in which he played one of Tom Cruise’s rivals, and Batman Forever (1995), where his Batman was overshadowed by Jim Carrey’s Riddler and Joel Schumacher’s campy direction. He decided not to reprise his superhero role for 1997’s Batman & Robin, also directed by Schumacher, who told Premiere magazine that “Val is the most psychologically troubled human being I’ve ever worked with. The tools I used to work with him — tools of communication, of patience and understanding — were the tools I use on my five-year-old godson. Val is not just high-strung. I think he needs help. I say this to you only because I have said it to him.”

Let the smear campaign begin! But in the spirit of equal time, how does the wannabe governor of New Mexico wish to respond?

“It’s probably fair to say I have [taken myself too seriously] on some jobs. I’m sure I’m more guilty of being difficult than I’d like to remember. I don’t regret my desires; I’ve regretted the way I would communicate my desires,” he told Premiere. “Maybe I’ve lost a job because of some rumor. I doubt it. But nobody good that I’ve worked with has ever said anything negative about me, because we’ve never had a negative experience. By ‘good,’ I mean directors who do their homework, people that are passionate, crazy, never sleep, and do like I do and just go after it.”

I’ve never been to New Mexico, but I’ve also never heard of Santa Fe being the city that never sleeps. But if insomnia has swept over the state because of the grand-jury probe into Governor Bill Richardson’s alleged “pay-to-play” activity, which forced him to withdraw his nomination last month as commerce secretary in President Obama’s administration, then Kilmer has an advantage in beating out Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish next year. (Kilmer served on the economic stability committee of Denish’s transition team last year when it looked like Richardson would be moving to D.C. and Denish would become governor.) I personally didn’t lose any sleep over the corruption scandal that brought down former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who was removed from office on January 29, but that’s probably because the previous governor, George Ryan, is already in prison for his own crimes of corruption. Been there, done that.

Back in November, Kilmer told the New York Post‘s Cindy Adams, “It’s been my home 25 years. I really love my state. Poor, hardworking, decent people — Native Americans, carpenters, artists, expats mixed in with hundreds of the world’s smartest physicists at Los Alamos. I’ve always thought of myself as functioning as a candidate for them.” A candidate who doesn’t engage in normal civic duties like voting, that is — though Kilmer has been registered to vote in New Mexico since 1992, he’s never cast a ballot there. And how come it took him almost a decade just to register?

He told the Santa Fe New Mexican last week that he regrets not voting but believes the state’s voters will cut him some slack. “I think we’re a forgiving people. But also very serious about the need to be more active,” he said. “I think it’s an invitation by President Obama in this new administration to be more responsible, and that’s going to become a demand.” Not to mention there’s an urgent demand for wacky chief executives now that we’ve seen how dull Obama can be. For God’s sake, he’s smart and he actually makes sense when he speaks! It’s such foreign territory for Americans. All the comedy forecasters say the situation will improve, that he’ll stop making sense soon enough, but I have a feeling it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Kilmer donated $4,600 to Ralph Nader’s campaign last year (“He’s a friend,” Kilmer told the AP), but he’s registered as a Democrat. He voted for President Obama in November, but he cast an absentee ballot from Bulgaria, where he was filming Fake Identity, a movie that will probably bypass theaters and end up on Blockbuster’s shelves near 7 Seconds and The Detonator, straight-to-video action films the once-promising Wesley Snipes made in Romania before being arrested for tax evasion in 2006.

Kilmer’s fading movie career is probably the main reason he’s thinking of running for governor. “I remember Robert Duvall saying that being a successful actor is all about finding interesting hobbies,” he once said, referring to the hurry-up-and-wait nature of movie acting, “because if you don’t have the right hobby, you die. It’s very hard to maintain interest. Most actors don’t.”

Schwarzenegger’s box-office dominance had faded by the time he announced his gubernatorial candidacy in the summer of ’03 — he was one of the villains in Batman & Robin, a disaster that Kilmer’s replacement, George Clooney, hasn’t stopped apologizing for — but Collateral Damage (2002) and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) were still big-budget, major-studio releases, and the latter was a huge hit, grossing $433 million worldwide.

Of the six films listed as being in postproduction on Kilmer’s IMDB page, only one, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, has A- or B-list costars (Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes) and a director whose name is instantly recognizable (Werner Herzog). Here’s the plot description for one of Kilmer’s completed films, The Steam Experiment: “A deranged scientist [Kilmer] locks 6 people in a steam room and threatens to turn up the heat if the local paper doesn’t publish his story about global warming.” (We know he’s deranged because he thinks his local paper still has some sort of influence.) It’s clear Kilmer is no longer being sent the best scripts, possibly because of all the rumors about him being “difficult” or maybe because of the tiny box-office grosses for films like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005).

But you know what isn’t tiny? Val Kilmer! He’s a Hollywood hunk who dares to dream, but at this point his dreams have expanded beyond La-La Land. Some people will say the man who played Elvis in True Romance (1993) has gotten too big for his britches, much like Marlon Brando, his costar in John Frankenheimer’s 1996 remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau and another big-screen sex symbol whose appetite for new challenges led him away from acting for enormous chunks of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s so he could feast on larger issues, like the plight of Native Americans. It’s true that no man is an island, even if he looks like one, so if Kilmer wants to grow into the role of governor by the end of next year, he’ll need to beef up his drive and determination ASAP to ensure a smorgasbord of votes. To help him accomplish this task, my lawyer/friend Dave-o and I have established an unofficial exploratory committee, weighing the pros and cons of a Kilmer administration based on his film career.

PRO: Played Batman. He’d be tough on crime.
CON: Didn’t seek a second term. Nobody likes a quitter.

PRO: Turned down 1986’s Blue Velvet when shown an early draft of the script because “it was straight-out, hard-core pornography before page 30.”
CON: As previously stated, played porn star John Holmes in 2003, thereby reversing his stance on a hot-button issue. Nobody likes a flip-flopper.

PRO: Played a Secret Service agent in Spartan (2004). He’s willing to take a bullet.
CON: Played The Saint (1997), a master of disguise and something of a con man … which would make him perfect as a politician since actual saints like Obama are boring, so this “con” should be changed to a “pro.”

PRO: Traveled to The Island of Dr. Moreau as well as Mars in Red Planet
(2000), proving he’s not afraid to explore new ideas and horizons.
CON: Dave-o says both of those movies really really really suck.

PRO: Not only can he act, a skill all politicians should have, he can sing — Kilmer released a CD in 2007 to benefit charity, and he lent his pipes to Top Secret! (1984), The Doors (1991), True Romance, and The Prince of Egypt (1998).
CON: Rod Blagojevich’s wife, Patti, fell for the disgraced governor when she heard him sing a medley of Elvis’s hits. Illinois voters hope he’ll soon be performing “Jailhouse Rock” in an appropriate venue.

PRO: Played Moses in The Ten Commandments: The Musical (2006) and provided the voices of Moses and God in The Prince of Egypt. Also played King Philip II in Alexander (2004) and the Lizard King in The Doors.
CON: May have delusions of grandeur. May also end up dead and overrated in a Paris bathtub.

PRO: Played a brave, patriotic U.S. Air Force pilot in Top Gun.
CON: According to notstarring.com, he turned down lead roles in Backdraft (1991) and Crimson Tide (1995), which can only mean he’s a godless communist who hates all brave, patriotic firemen and Navy personnel.
BONUS PRO: By not appearing in Crimson Tide, Kilmer avoided hanging out with seamen in a long shaft, a compromising position that could’ve come back to bite him during the campaign season.
BONUS CON: Before Top Gun, volleyball was the least homoerotic thing a bunch of sweaty, shirtless guys could do together. The sport would never be the same.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/dT59FXkS93Q" width="600" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

William Baldwin ended up playing the lead role in Backdraft, but it wasn’t the only time Kilmer helped out his career — notstarring.com says he also turned down the roles in Sliver (1993) and Fair Game (1995) that eventually went to Alec’s younger brother. But William can be forgiven for not sending Val a thank-you card — Sliver and Fair Game were flops, and though there was speculation that Baldwin might replace Michael Keaton once he opted out of Batman Forever, the role went to Kilmer.

Coincidentally, Kilmer and Alec Baldwin sort of had the same problem in the ‘90s: they were character actors stuck in leading men’s bodies. They’re both gifted comedians, and both started out doing comedies — Kilmer in Top Secret! and Real Genius (1985), Baldwin in Beetlejuice, Married to the Mob, and Working Girl (all 1988). They’ve both worked with Kim Basinger — The Real McCoy (1993) for Kilmer, The Marrying Man (1991) and The Getaway (1994) for Baldwin, though only Baldwin had enough Method in his madness to actually marry her. They’ve both played noir-ish superheroes — Kilmer was Batman and Baldwin was The Shadow (1994). They both appear each week on NBC, though Kilmer’s presence isn’t as visible as Baldwin’s on 30 Rock — Kilmer is the voice of KITT on the new version of Knight Rider. And they’re both interested in politics — Baldwin has expressed interest in running for governor of New York someday.

Baldwin, like Kilmer, thinks big. Because he is big. Hollywood can keep its Clooneys and Cruises, stars with slender goals and petite-size populist visions. Rescuing the American economy calls for big ideas, but it takes big men to think up big ideas! Besides, as Kilmer told the AP, “What I do for a living is listen.” All kidding aside (of course I’m jealous — these guys have more hair in middle age than I had at 22!), it’s true that the best actors are often the best listeners. Bad actors recite, good actors react. The current recession has left a lot of unemployed Americans looking for people in power who are willing to listen and who will react quickly.

On Kilmer’s Wikiquote page there’s this observation: “It’s so rare when an actor gets hired because he’s right for the role — it just doesn’t figure into it.” You can insert your own George W. Bush joke here, but last month, when interviewed by the Boston Globe, Kilmer noted that many actors have become politicians, including Schwarzenegger, former president and California governor Ronald Reagan, and Clint Eastwood, who was mayor of Carmel, California, for two years in the late ’80s. “And they always win, so I guess we’ll see.”