The Val Kilmer story I never got to write

Jun 18, 2020 | Arts and Entertainment, Matthewrozsa

There is a story that I never managed to get published in an article, even though it’s one of the most memorable of my career. I’ve decided to plow through my latest bout of insomnia by sharing it here.
Sneak preview: It’s a Val Kilmer story.
The tale is set in the summer of 2017. I was just beginning to integrate culture criticism into my writing repertoire and was thrilled when I learned that Kilmer was visiting the Steel Stacks — a cultural center in Bethlehem, PA — to personally show his new movie “Citizen Twain” and discuss it with a small audience of his fans. I’m a superfan of America’s greatest writer, Mark Twain, especially his essays on politics and religion. I also admire Kilmer (I’m particularly impressed with his underrated portrayal of Moses in “The Prince of Egypt”), so I naturally wanted to attend and got the green light from my editor to write a review. I informed Kilmer’s people that I was a member of the press, they responded warmly, and reservations were subsequently made.
Then, on the night of the show, I received a phone call that is the bane of any ostensibly intrepid journalist’s existence:
“Sorry, but Mr. Kilmer has decided that he wants the evening to be an intimate one between him and his fans. No members of the press will be allowed.”
Disappointed, I asked my editor what to do. His response was, well, all kinds of badass:
“I’m not telling you to buy a ticket as a regular audience member and go that way. Pause. But I’m also not telling you NOT to do that.”
One ticket purchase later, and I was at the show, enjoying a delicious cheeseburger and chatting with the audience members. Most of them were there as fans of Kilmer and not Twain, which didn’t surprise me. A few bought overpriced memorabilia from “Batman Forever,” which did surprise me.
I won’t share my thoughts on “Citizen Twain” with you; for those, you can read the link to my movie review (which I’ve pasted at the bottom of this post). Instead I will tell you what happened when Kilmer decided to do a Q & A after the show.
Despite his reputation for being standoffish, he was witty and seemed to genuinely appreciate the opportunity to engage with his audience. I was struck by how ill he appeared to be — he was gaunt and his tongue was swollen, which made it difficult to understand him when he talked — but he nevertheless was clearly enjoying himself.
Then, as he was in the middle of answering a different audience member’s question, he noticed that I was taking notes on a pad. At that moment he abruptly interrupted his own train of thought, looked directly at me and said:
“Are you a member of the press?”
I told him that I was, causing him to grimace. A booming voice in the back asked:
“Do you want me to throw him out?”
For a moment the thought flashed through my head — ‘Am I about to be physically thrown out of a Val Kilmer show?’ — but Kilmer replied:
“Nah, he’s already here. If I throw him out now, he’ll just shit on my movie.”
The rest of the evening was a blast for me, as I suspect it would be for anyone who can enjoy playing the role of symbolic villain for an obviously sensitive celebrity. Several of his subsequent answers to various questions included references to “them” (meaning the media), followed by exaggerated gesticulations in my direction. These barbs were tossed out when either (a) someone asked him why he has kept such a low profile for the past few years or (b) why he preferred to show his passion project to small audiences.
There is a reason why I cherish this story as one of the favorites of the dozens of celebrity interactions I’ve had in my journalistic career. Unlike people who hate on the media because it holds them accountable for their misdeeds (looking at you, President Donald Trump), Kilmer’s repeated ribbing was good natured… dare I say, even affectionate. The vibe I got was not one of a man who wished me harm, or was even hostile, but rather of someone who had been burned by the press before yet could appreciate that I had found a way to see his show all the same. When you work in a creative industry and understand the impetus that makes people produce art — a drive fueled by comprehending that, as William Faulkner once put it, “the human heart in conflict with itself” is the source of all great art — there is a certain capacity to commiserate with anyone who will go to great lengths to perform their calling. In Kilmer’s case, the calling was to make a movie about Mark Twain. In my case, the calling was to write a work of criticism — and I strongly believe art criticism is an art form in its own right.
I suspected this was his mindset as he repeatedly joked at my expense, but lest I harbor any doubts as to his motives, he confirmed his mindset when I stopped by as he was having his picture taken with fans. He looked at me, said one word — “Impressive” — and briefly smiled. Then we went our separate ways.
I desperately wanted to include this story in my review, but ultimately omitted it because I felt it would have been at odds with my main responsibility, which was to analyze the movie. Even the best stories fall flat when they’re forced into a narrative.


Despite Kilmer’s fears, though, I actually loved his film. It is a gift to anyone who admires Twain and I lament that we live in a world where studios don’t pick up this kind of fare. Perhaps this tale would have been funnier if I had panned “Cinema Twain” — I could say that I sure showed him, that sort of thing — but when all is said and done, the memory of that night matters so much more to me because I didn’t have to play the role of Anton Ego to Kilmer’s Auguste Gusteau.

That’s a reference to “Ratatouille,” by the way (another great film), in which a food critic (Ego) breaks the spirit of a talented chef (Gusteau) by writing a bad review about him. By the end of the film Ego writes a positive review about a different chef, and his words explaining why he did so perfectly sum up how I feel about my Kilmer experience.
“The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”
Kilmer may not be new, but the movie he made was bold and unique, and most definitely needed friends. And, in a weird way, I feel privileged that my career has put me in a place where I could be that friend, even if I had to go through a quite unusual evening in the process.
On that note, off to bed!