In Praise of Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday

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None of my younger friends have seen Tombstone and that’s a damned shame. It’s a great Western with a classic story and a tremendous cast. Kurt Russell stars as the infamous lawman Wyatt Earp. Sam Elliot (the cowboy from The Big Lebowski) plays Virgil Earp. Billy Zane gives a zany performance as a thespian.

This movie has Charlton Heston, Dana Delaney, Bill Paxton, Bill Bob Thornton, and a gang of other Hollywood notables, but no one stands out as much as Val Kilmer.

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Kilmer plays Doc Holiday, a gambling gun fighter who had a side career as a dentist. He came down with tuberculosis early into his career and went West hoping the arid weather would help his condition. His adventures involved at least nine gunfights, including the most famous one with the Earp at the OK Corral. He survived four attempts to hang him.

Holliday was extremely interesting, because of that, he’s a character that’s popped up quite a few times in film. No one has done a better job playing him than Val Kilmer. I don’t know how accurate a performance it is, but it’s magnetically weird.

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Kilmer sashays about, clowning, drinking, coughing, and speaking Latin. He’s constantly vacillating between erudition and insobriety. He has all the best lines.

Through most of the film Kilmer is covered in a shiny layer of sweat meant to show the effects of tuberculosis. The whole time he looks like he’s having a good time and smiling at an inside joke. It reminds me a lot of how Johnny Depp acted as Captain Jack Sparrow.

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I watched Tombstone again recently and it did not disappoint. One of the cool things about Westerns is they never really age too terribly. This flick came out right after Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and is part of what I’d call the beginning of the gritty Western look. After the 90s the tone for them became darker, realer, meaner. The violence became more graphic.

Some of the dialog is a little goofy, though. The writers used a lot of legit Old West slang, which sounds awesome, but it’s so bizarre to the modern ear that it sounds a little like Yosemite Sam. Early scripts of the excellent HBO series Deadwood had similar diction, but it didn’t play well. The writers ended up using modern slang, resulting in more”motherfuckers” per scene than anything except Samuel L. Jackson movies.

Anyway, I’ve always been a fan of Val Kilmer and this is my favorite of his roles. It’s even better than his turn wearing the batsuit.

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