Cast & Crew
In 1975, Harvey Pekar, a disgruntled, highly intelligent yet largely self-educated man, works as a file clerk at a Cleveland Veterans' Administration Hospital. Depressed by his lackluster existence, Harvey is also burdened with ill health and the imminent failure of his second marriage. When his wife, who obtained her doctoral degree with Harvey's support, prepares to leave him, Harvey tries to beg her to stay, but a nodule on his vocal chords prevents him from speaking in more than a raspy whisper. Harvey, who suffers from an obsessive desire to collect things, has a huge assortment of comic books and jazz records. Attempting to assuage the pain of his divorce, Harvey scours thrift stores and garage sales for rare records, and remembers how, in 1962, he met artist Robert Crumb at a garage sale. The men's mutual love of comics and jazz cemented their friendship, and Harvey, impressed by Crumb's irreverent view of life, urged him to publish a comic book he had drawn. Crumb eventually moved to San Francisco and became one of the leaders of the "underground comics" movement, which sought to present adult themes in a more realistic manner than traditional comics. Crumb still visits Cleveland and Harvey, and during one visit, Harvey wishes that he could trade the growth that comes from bad experiences for a little happiness. When Crumb complains that he is tired of the comics "scene," Harvey chides him, reminding him that he is making a living doing something he loves, as opposed to being stuck in a meaningless job. One day at work, Harvey reads the file of a deceased veteran who lived his entire life in Cleveland and worked as a clerk. Determined to make more of himself, Harvey goes home to create a comic of his own, but, unable to draw, must resort to illustrating his work with stick figures. The frustrated Harvey gives up and goes to the grocery store, but there is inspired by his irritation about standing in line and stays up all night completing his manuscript. Harvey shows his work to Crumb, explaining that he believes comics can be a true art form, and that he wants to write about everyday life, because "ordinary life is pretty complex stuff." Delighted with Harvey's deeply felt, sometimes eccentric and anti-Yuppie observations, Crumb offers to illustrate his manuscript, which thrills Harvey so much that he suddenly regains the full strength of his voice. When Harvey's first comic, entitled American Splendor , is published, he shows it to his co-workers, including Mr. Boats and Toby Radloff, who are pleased for him. Over the next seven issues and into the 1980s, Harvey continues to write about his daily life and includes his friends in his stories, which are illustrated by Crumb and other artists. Harvey receives recognition and praise from critics throughout the country, but is still financially dependent upon his VA job. One weekend, Harvey runs into Alice Quinn, an old school friend, and despite her delighted statement that he is famous, Harvey grumbles about his loneliness and pain. Harvey spends the rest of the weekend wallowing in his loneliness, but also contemplating how sweet life is. Meanwhile at the Cosmic Comics shop in Wilmington, Delaware, owner Joyce Brabner upbraids her partner, Rand, for selling her personal issue of American Splendor before she could read it. The intellectual but somewhat eccentric Joyce writes to Harvey to request a copy of the comic, and soon the two begin a correspondence. Their letters turn into phone calls, and eventually, Harvey asks Joyce to come to Cleveland for a face-to-face meeting. Joyce expresses her hesitation, as each artist who draws Harvey for his comic portrays him differently, but Harvey promises that he will try to be anyone she wants him to be. Despite her concern that she is a "notorious reformer," Joyce agrees, and after an awkward first date, goes to Harvey's apartment with him. Although their first kiss is immediately followed by Joyce throwing up, she realizes that they have much in common and tells Harvey that they should "skip the whole courtship thing" and get married. Surprised but pleased, Harvey agrees, and Joyce moves to Cleveland. Their marriage is rocky, however, with Joyce becoming frustrated over Harvey's obsessive collecting and cluttered apartment, while Harvey is upset because Joyce does not seek work. Their life appears to take an upturn when a Los Angeles producer stages a play based on Harvey's comic, which now includes Joyce as a regular character. Upon their return to Cleveland, however, Joyce expresses her desire to start a family, to which Harvey, who informed Joyce at their first meeting that he had had a vasectomy, is vehemently opposed. Their relationship worsens, as Joyce grows so depressed that she refuses to get out of bed. Joyce finally arises, however, when word comes that Harvey is wanted for an appearance on David Letterman's television talk show. While Letterman is baffled by Harvey's abrasive manner, Joyce is disgusted, feeling that Harvey is compromising his counterculture edge by pandering to the talk show host. Letterman's audience loves Harvey, however, and he returns for several more appearances on the show. Although he enjoys the money from his appearances, Harvey feels that the show does little for the sale of his work, and that he is being used "for laughs." A year passes, until one day, Harvey decides that he has had enough, especially when the publicity surrounding his comics results in Toby getting a job endorsing MTV, which, in reality, ridicules him. While Harvey is growing increasingly cynical, Joyce has begun seeking deeper meaning in her life and decides to travel to Jerusalem to write about children living in war-torn areas. During Joyce's absence, Harvey discovers a lump in his groin, and his resulting anxiety, as well as his loneliness, causes him to lash out so harshly during one of his Letterman appearances that he is banned from the show. Upon Joyce's return, she is pleased that Harvey is through with the show, but soon learns about his tumor. When the couple visits the doctor, he confirms that Harvey has cancer. Although Harvey declares that he wants to give up and die, Joyce insists that he should distance himself from the experience by writing a comic about it and documenting every detail of his treatment. Joyce hires artist Fred to illustrate the story, on which she collaborates with Harvey, who has agreed to the project. Due to his divorce, Fred is forced to bring his young daughter Danielle to his meetings with Joyce and Harvey, but Harvey is pleased to see how well Joyce and Danielle get along. During Harvey's long, painful chemotherapy, he continues to document his progress, although he begins to wonder who he really is. A year later, Harvey and Joyce attend a book signing of their graphic novel, Our Cancer Year , which wins several book awards. They are relieved to learn soon after that Harvey is completely cancer-free, and Harvey muses on the fact that his cancer brought them Danielle, who moved in with them after Fred decided that they could care for her better than he. Although Harvey was nervous about being a father, he quickly adapts to and enjoys his new role. Time continues to pass, and Harvey ponders his life with Joyce, which is fruitful but still fraught with arguments, and the joy brought to them by Danielle, tempered by the problems caused by her Attention Deficit Disorder. Harvey finally retires from his job, and at the celebratory party, while Harvey receives a hug from Danielle and Joyce, the newest issue of American Splendor , entitled Our Movie Year , sits on his desk.
Shari Springer Berman
Larry John Myers
Amy K. Harmon
Robert J. Williams
Ian L. Axilrod
Alexander 'ace' Baker
Shari Springer Berman
Paula D. Collins
W. Kiely Cronin
Dallas String Band
Michael B. Davies
Robin K. Fields
Jason Cooper Hall
Oscar Hammerstein Ii
Virginia M. Herdman
Matthew E. Jennings
David Lemoyne Jones
George A. Lara
Murshel C. Lewis
Donald J. Liegl
Deborah R. Lilly
Julie Ann 'doc' Lindstrom
Thomas Titus Mccue
Joseph L. Mcdermott
Russ A. Minerd
David W. Mooney
Chris Petro Ii
Ryan J. Polack
Amanda L. Preputnik
William Robinson Jr.
Michael M. Rochford
Aon/albert G. Ruben
Matt G. Sheets
Michael F. Taylor
James E. Todd
Albert Von Tilzer
Christine Kunewa Walker
Roman A. Wlaszyn
Russell O. Wulff
Best Adapted Screenplay
In the opening credits, just after title cards bearing the names of actors Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, a title card reads "From off the streets of Cleveland comes," followed by another card reading "American Splendor." The phrase "From off the streets of Cleveland comes" appears on the cover of Pekar's comics. Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman's credit reads "written and directed by." A number of individuals and organizations are given thanks in the end credits, including NBC Studios for providing footage of Late Night with David Letterman. An acknowledgment is also given to The Independent Eye, producer of the first live theatrical production based on the comic book American Splendor. The film's end credits state "Dave Douglas appears courtesy of RCA Victor Group."
The film was inspired by the life of underground comic writer Harvey Pekar and his wife, Joyce Brabner, as recounted in Pekar's black-and-white comic book series, American Splendor, and the 1994 comic co-written by Pekar and Brabner, Our Cancer Year.
The highly stylized film variously combines elements of a traditional narrative about Pekar with 2D comics from the American Splendor series and scenes of the real Pekar, who is shown both in archival footage and sequences shot especially for the film. At various points within the film, the real Pekar narrates the action, offering his thoughts and comments on situations within his life, the film and people he knows. Periodically, he is seen being interviewed in a starkly furnished setting by Springer Berman, who acted as the offscreen questioner. In a few places in the film, Pekar is shown wearing the same clothes and re-enacting a scene that has just been shown with Giamatti as Pekar. In one sequence, while working at the hospital, Giamatti and Judah Friedlander, who plays "Toby Radloff," discuss Lent, religion and gourmet jellybeans. Giamatti and Friedlander then step off the hospital set onto the adjoining "documentary set," where they listen as the real Pekar and Radloff sample more jellybeans and talk about their methods of coping with loneliness.
Brabner is also interviewed in the film, at one point commenting that her husband is occasionally too hard on her, while Pekar listens, then says he is not. At the end of the story, the real Pekar and Brabner, along with their foster daughter Danielle, are shown at Pekar's 2001 retirement party at the Cleveland VA Hospital, with his actual co-workers gathered around him.
The film's credits appear as comics, and throughout the film sketches drawn by R. [Robert] Crumb, Doug Allen and other artists turn into live action and vice-versa. At one point, near the end of the film, Giamatti walks into a completely white setting, and as he walks, a line, simulating the black ink lines in the comics, follows his footsteps, in effect creating a floor. Giamatti, as Pekar, then delivers a soliloquy centering on his unusual name and his feelings at discovering other "Harvey Pekars" in the Cleveland telephone directory. The soliloquy was taken from the first few pages of Pekar's initial American Splendor comic, published in 1976. The animation and titles were created by Gary Leib and John Kuramoto of Twinkle, a New York-based company.
Pekar self-published the comics, on an average of one a year, until the early 1990s, when Dark Horse took over their publication. As shown in the film, Pekar himself was a writer, not an artist, and the comics were variously illustrated by noted underground comics artists Crumb, Allen, Greg Budgett and Gary Dumm.
Actual clips from Pekar's 1986-1988 appearances on Late Night with David Letterman are shown; however, the eighth and final Letterman appearance in 1988 was re-created, with Giamatti as Pekar, and Todd Cummings as the "talk show host voice," as listed in the film's credits. During the final 1988 appearance, Pekar denounced General Electric, parent company of NBC, the network on which Letterman's show was then broadcast, as criminals. Although it is not mentioned in the film, Pekar appeared twice more on Letterman's show, in the early 1990s.
In addition to being a writer of comics and a file clerk at the Cleveland VA Hospital, Pekar is a well-known jazz lover and published jazz critic. Many of the songs on the film's soundtrack were meaningful in his own life, according to the film's pressbook. In interviews, Pekar has been quoted as stating that the Marvin Gaye song "Ain't That Peculiar," which is featured prominently in the film, is "the soundtrack of my life."
According to the pressbook, attempts had been made to adapt the American Splendor comics into a film since 1980. In the short comic "My Movie Year," written by Pekar for the film's DVD release, Pekar relate that director Jonathan Demme was the first person to contact him about the rights, but Demme could not raise funds for the project. Pekar also noted that, in the mid-1990s, comedian Rob Schneider was interested in starring in the film version. According to the pressbook, in 1998, when rights to the comics were again available, cartoonist and animator Dean Haspiel, who was a friend and colleague of Pekar as well as producer Ted Hope, facilitated a deal that eventually led to the 2003 film. The film was shot entirely on location in Cleveland, with its documentary portions shot in a Cleveland studio. According to a November 16, 2001 Daily Variety news item, the film was budgeted at under $2,000,000.
American Splendor was the first narrative feature film of married filmmakers Springer Berman and Pulcini, who had previously made documentaries. It was also the first theatrical release of HBO Films. The film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 20, 2003, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. In May 2003 the film was also shown in the Un Certain Regard category at the Cannes Film Festival, where Pekar and Brabner celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary. American Splendor was also the closing night film at the August 2003 Edinburgh Film Festival.
Throughout the promotion of the film, numerous articles have appeared on Pekar, prompting additional sales of his comics. He contributed a two-page comic entitled "Comics Are My Thing" to New York Times in August 2003, which discussed his relationship to the film. The strip was drawn by artist Dumm, with color provided by Laura Dumm. In addition to being selected as one of the top ten films of the year by AFI, American Splendor was listed on over eighty top ten film lists, according to Pekar's website. Other accolades for the film include the following: Best Picture and Best Screenplay citations from the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association; Special Achievement in Filmmaking and Breakthrough Performance Award for Giamatti from the National Board of Review; a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe nomination for Davis as well as the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Actress; and several Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best Feature for producer Hope, Best Director and Best Screenplay nominations for Springer Berman & Pulcini, Best Male Lead for Giamatti and Best Supporting Male performance for Friedlander. Springer Berman and Pulcini also received WGA and Academy Award nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Voted one of the 10 best films of 2003 by the American Film Institute (AFI).
Winner of the 2003 award for Best Adapted Screenplay by the Writer's Guild of America (WGA).
Winner of the 2003 Award for Best Breakthrough Actor (Paul Giamatti) from the National Board of Review.
Winner of the 2003 awards for Best Actress (Hope Davis) and Best First Feature (Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman) from the New York Film Critics Circle.
Winner of the 2003 awards for Best Picture and Best Screenplay from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
Winner of the 2003 awards for Best Picture and Best Screenplay from the National Society of Film Critics (NSFC).
Winner of the 2003 Toronto Film Critics Association (TFCA) award for Best First Feature.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Feature Film (Dramatic Competition) at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.
Winner of the Guardian New Director Award at the 2003 Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Released in United States August 2003
Released in United States January 2003
Released in United States May 2003
Released in United States on Video February 3, 2004
Released in United States Summer August 15, 2003
Shown at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard) May 14-25, 2003.
Shown at Edinburgh International Film Festival August 13-24, 2003.
HBO Films, in partnership with Fine Line Features, acquired North American rights at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.
Released in United States January 2003 (Shown at Sundance Film Festival (Dramatic Competition) January 16-26, 2003.)
Released in United States on Video February 3, 2004
Released in United States May 2003 (Shown at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard) May 14-25, 2003.)
Released in United States August 2003 (Shown at Edinburgh International Film Festival August 13-24, 2003.)
Released in United States Summer August 15, 2003