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Val Kilmer’s ‘I’m Your Huckleberry’ offers a scatterbrained journey into his idiosyncratic head space

Val Kilmer, center, appears with Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Craig Hatkoff, left, and Bradley Koepenick at the Novus SDG Moonshots Summit at the United Nations in 2019. (Rob Kim/Getty Images)
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Val Kilmer acknowledges early in “I’m Your Huckleberry,” his absorbing but uneven memoir, that speaking doesn’t come easily to him nowadays. After the movie star’s 2015 throat cancer diagnosis and surgery, he writes that he sounds like “Marlon Brando after a couple of bottles of tequila.” Kilmer adds: “It isn’t a frog in my throat. More like a buffalo.”

That doesn’t mean Kilmer, 60, is at a loss for words. When he asserts that picking up “I’m Your Huckleberry” is like slotting a couple of quarters into the “pinball machine of my mind,” he is not overselling the experience. What follows is a zigzagging ride through Kilmer’s distinctive life and career, penned by a spiritual storyteller with no qualms about indulging in his eccentricities. At one point, Kilmer claims to have foreseen the future in his dreams. Later, he says an angel appeared on his 24th birthday, pulled the actor’s heart from his chest and replaced it with a bigger one.

Kilmer’s tone is raw and reflective as he weaves poems into his expressive prose. (He is a literary obsessive who admires Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and Samuel Beckett, after all.) Crucially, he shows a willingness to analyze his own image. As far as Hollywood case studies go, Kilmer’s career proves plenty worthy of deconstruction. “Just as I am a composite of all my characters,” he writes, “each character I’ve played is a composite of me.”

As a theater prodigy, Kilmer was accepted to Juilliard’s drama department when he was 16, making him the youngest student admitted up to that point. Then came his Hollywood emergence as the baby-faced star of 1980s movies such as “Top Secret!” “Real Genius” and “Top Gun.” The 1990s brought an eclectic mix of hit films, including “Batman Forever,” “Heat” and “Tombstone” (the movie whose script lends “I’m Your Huckleberry” its title). But the 2000s were less kind to Kilmer, as money woes and fading career prospects steered him toward the direct-to-video circuit.

For Hollywood fanatics, Kilmer drops plenty of names and behind-the-scenes tidbits. He concedes he had no interest in the testosterone-fueled spectacle of “Top Gun” until he reluctantly met with Tony Scott and was won over by the director’s jubilance. Kilmer also describes the emotionally taxing experience of inhabiting Jim Morrison for 1991’s “The Doors.” Then there is the “unholy mess” that was “Tombstone’s” production, as he and co-star Kurt Russell reworked the script after the dismissal of original director Kevin Jarre.

The most striking anecdotes come as Kilmer opens up on his connection to Brando, with whom he worked on 1996’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” By that point in Brando’s life, Kilmer recalls, the screen legend was reeling from health issues and family tragedy. Kilmer, for his part, was a wreck after abruptly learning that his wife, Joanne Whalley, was filing for divorce. Reports have long claimed that Kilmer and Brando clashed on set, but Kilmer paints a starkly different picture, of mutual understanding and empathy. Rather than serve up juicy gossip on the famously troubled production, Kilmer ruminates on a bittersweet bond between two tortured souls.

If there’s a through line to “I’m Your Huckleberry,” it’s “Love,” which Kilmer dutifully capitalizes throughout (per his Christian Science faith). Mare Winningham, Ellen Barkin, Carly Simon, Cindy Crawford, Daryl Hannah, Angelina Jolie — the list of high-profile flings and infatuations goes on and on. But Kilmer gives particular depth to his relationship, and enduring friendship, with Cher. In the first chapter, he reveals that he moved into her Malibu guesthouse during his recent illness, decades after their romance burned out. “Once Cher works her way inside your head and heart, she never leaves,” he writes.

There is a sense, though, that Kilmer is skimming over certain pivotal episodes. When he quickly chalks up his financial despair to a mismanaged attempt at creating a utopian commune, the reader is left with infinitely more questions than answers. He also seems reluctant to elaborate on his strained relationship with his father, and only spends a few pages musing on his health struggles and ongoing recovery.

Other passages meander errantly. After one narrative detour, Kilmer recognizes the digression with a rhetorical question: “Where were we?” To be fair, there is something charming and disarming about a celebrity memoir that’s willing to go off the rails. Rather than a carefully curated self-portrait, Kilmer offers a scatterbrained journey into his idiosyncratic head space. If this is the pinball machine of Kilmer’s mind, you have to give it to him: He’s playing by his own rules.

Thomas Floyd is a multiplatform editor who writes about arts and entertainment for The Washington Post.

By Val Kilmer

Simon & Schuster. 320 pp. $28

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