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Val Kilmer: His Light and Dark Sides, Captured in ‘Real Genius’ and ‘Wonderland’ (Column)

Home Movies: The actor is having a moment, and no films nail his yin and yang better than Martha Coolidge's 1985 brainiac comedy and the 2003 drama in which he played porn star John Holmes.

Val Kilmer Wonderland Real Genius
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Val Kilmer is having a moment, thanks to Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s whatever-happened-to…? portrait of him in The New York Times Magazine, which was pegged to the release of his memoir “I’m Your Huckleberry.” It’s one of those buzzy voyeuristic profiles that takes the measure of a movie star who slipped between the cracks and became a gonzo ghost/parody of himself, propelled at times by an engine of self-destructive behavior. Yet the Kilmer saga is singular. In his heyday, he looked like a brainy sun god and was a hard-to-cast, flaked-out talent who fell away from Hollywood without ever having entirely fit into it. The Times profile captures Kilmer the high-flying eccentric and the Christian Scientist. The acting prima donna and the has-been. The throat-cancer victim who lost his voice and now speaks in a whisper. The cockeyed optimist and the survivor. And the legend?

The weirdest thing about Kilmer as an actor is that even in the ’80s and ’90s, when he gave the performances that everyone still talks about (his feral Iceman in “Top Gun,” his spacey demon flower child Jim Morrison in “The Doors,” his aristocratic Southern rotter Doc Holliday in “Tombstone”), he possessed an ironic sensibility that lent his acting an invisible grace note of detachment. The movies he starred in were often flawed (“The Doors” has transcendent concert sequences but as a portrait of Morrison it’s more impressionistic than deep), and by the time he hit A-list status he got stuck in an early version of franchise hell; no actor alive could have saved “The Saint,” “Batman Forever,” or “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” Kilmer, though, was a paradox, an acting purist who didn’t seem to fully trust passion.

On occasion, though, he did. In response to this Kilmer moment, I went back and watched two of the performances of his that struck me the most when I first saw them. If you want to get your Val on, then by all means see “Tombstone” again, or “The Doors,” or his small roles in “True Romance” and “Heat.” But if you want to connect to the yin and yang of Val Kilmer, I recommend that you check out “Real Genius,” the 1985 comedy that really launched him as a star (though yes, I loved him in ZAZ’s “Top Secret!” too), and “Wonderland,” the little-seen 2003 drama in which he plays the porn star John Holmes — and guess what, it may be his single greatest performance.

There are different tiers of ’80s teen comedy, from the pantheon (“The Breakfast Club,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Say Anything…”) to the hip/cult/cool (“One Crazy Summer,” “Heathers”) to the not-great-but-better-than-you-remember (“Revenge of the Nerds,” “Some Kind of Wonderful”) to the kitsch nostalgia (“Footloose,” “Adventures in Babysitting”) that’s now granted classic status by X-ers who bathe every morsel of trash they grew up with in a hindsight glow. “Real Genius” could be placed in almost any one of those categories. It stars Kilmer as Chris Knight, a science wizard in his senior year at Pacific Tech (a knockoff of Cal Tech), and there are moments when his lightning-fast but spectacularly nonchalant delivery suggests Heath Ledger channeling Cary Grant.

Directed with bubblegum verve by Martha Coolidge (“Valley Girl”), “Real Genius” certainly has a hipster quotient, since it was ahead of the geek-chic curve. Computer types had begun to pop up in movies, but no one had any idea that they would one day be cool. “Real Genius,” however, knows this. It’s the movie that “Weird Science” wanted to be, yet it’s made of equal parts wit and cheese, with one of those big-beat ’80s synth-pop scores and a villain who says things like “You’re laborers — you’re supposed to be laboring!” Chris and his fellow student geniuses are inventing a laser weapon their professor (William Atherton) has promised to deliver to the CIA, and the laser can zap an individual from deep space, making it seem like an invention from “Flash Gordon.”

The wordplay is something else. Chris becomes the mentor to a 15-year-old prodigy, played by Gabriel Jarret as a kind of walking high-school sophomore yearbook photo, and he tutors the kid in how to be a proper disreputable brain. This means learning to party, but mostly it means cultivating the right absurdist attitude of cynical bravado. Kilmer glides through the movie like an elfin jock in fuzzy animal slippers who lives on a cloud of superiority, bringing the perfect note of fake seriousness to lines like “You wanted to see me, your jogging-ness?” and “I was thinking of the immortal words of Socrates, who said, ‘I drank what?'” The entire performance is a loop of spinning sarcasm that expresses, in early form, Kilmer’s distrust of the stardom that was about to come to him.

In “Real Genius,” we see Kilmer the cutup, radiating the wicked cheek that’s often driven his best work. But if you want to see Kilmer the drop-dead serious actor, who could lay out his soul in a performance (it didn’t happen too often), you should check out “Wonderland,” a drama set at the true-life intersection of porn and sleaze and drugs and murder. The director, James Cox, takes a deep dive into the L.A. snake pit, and “Wonderland,” in its sordid and shocking bad-vibe way, is a spectacular film — a squalid, mesmerizing thriller that never turns away from the truth of what it’s showing you. Just be warned: It’s one of the darkest movies ever made.

It takes place over several days in July 1981, when John Holmes, the skinny, impassive, hollow-eyed porn stud who’d become a legend for everything to do with…well, size (the length of his penis; the number of hardcore films he appeared in — said to be anywhere from 500 to 1,000), has hit the skids. For a decade, he seemed to show up in every porn film ever made, but as he sweet-talks his girlfriend, Dawn (Kate Bosworth), into staying with him, we see the Holmes who’s fallen off the bottom rung of the adult-film industry. He’s a freebase addict, a scurvy hustler, and a thief who hangs out with a crew of scuzzbucket junkie gun-nut coke dealers who operate out of an apartment on Wonderland Avenue in Lauren Canyon. One, a tattooed biker, is played by Dylan McDermott, and his astoundingly authentic performance — we see the person beneath the hard-ass trappings — sets the tone for a movie that understands the human side of psycho criminality.

Kilmer, his face framed by greasy brown curls, with a smile that flicks on and off like a faulty neon sign, plays Holmes as a coked-up hanger-on who is always trying to talk somebody into something. He’s a charmer — except that his charm is just one thread of a personality that’s a tangle of lies and manipulations. Even when Holmes is at his most desperate and sincere, he’s doing a number on you. In “Wonderland,” we’re watching a great actor play a dead-zone porn actor whose borderline personality makes him more of an actor than anyone around.

Holmes is pals with Eddie Nash, the drug-dealing L.A. nightclub kingpin, played with thick-witted rage by Eric Bogosian. So when Holmes’ cronies come up with a reckless plot to break into Nash’s lair and commit an armed robbery, John is caught in the middle. He’s been given no choice but to set Nash up, yet the plan is doomed to backfire. The murders at Wonderland were revenge killings so brutal they carried an echo of Manson, and the arrest of Holmes added a sleazy layer of mystery. How was he connected to them? “Wonderland,” built around a series of police interrogations, edges closer and closer to what, in all likelihood, happened, and when Cox stages the night in question, it’s the rare moment when a film drama descends into hell. Holmes has pursued a life of excess, and now we see what the end point of living with no limits is. Yet the power of it is that Kilmer portrays Holmes as a sinner laced with innocence. He sells himself to the dark side, with no idea of how low you can go.