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American Splendor (film)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

American Splendor
American Splendor film.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byShari Springer Berman
Robert Pulcini
Produced byTed Hope
Christine Kunewa Walker
Julia King
Declan Baldwin
Written byShari Springer Berman
Robert Pulcini
Based on
StarringPaul Giamatti
Hope Davis
Judah Friedlander
Music byMark Suozzo
CinematographyTerry Stacey
Edited byRobert Pulcini
Distributed byFine Line Features
HBO Films
Release date
  • January 20, 2003 (2003-01-20) (Sundance)
  • August 15, 2003 (2003-08-15) (United States)
Running time
101 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$2 million
Box office$8 million[2]

American Splendor is a 2003 American biographical comedy-drama film about Harvey Pekar, the author of the American Splendor comic book series. The film, which is a hybrid production featuring live actors, documentary, and animation, is in part an adaptation of the comics, which dramatize Pekar's life. American Splendor was written and directed by documentarians Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini.[3]

The film stars Paul Giamatti as Pekar and Hope Davis as Joyce Brabner.[3] It also features appearances from Pekar and Brabner themselves (along with Pekar's long-time co-worker Toby Radloff),[3] who discuss their lives, the comic books, and how it feels to be depicted onscreen by actors. It was filmed entirely on location in Cleveland and Lakewood in Ohio.[4]


The film opens in the year 1950. It's Halloween and an 11-year-old Harvey Pekar refuses to dress up as a superhero while trick-or-treating. The scene shifts to an adult Harvey (Paul Giamatti), walking the gritty Cleveland streets. Then real Harvey Pekar appears in a documentary-style setup.

The narrative picks up again in 1975, as a scratchy-voiced Harvey visits a throat doctor and exhibits hypochondria. Harvey's wife decides their "plebeian" lifestyle just isn't working for her anymore; without being able to speak, Harvey is powerless to convince her not to leave him. A few months later, a depressed Harvey is at his file clerk job at the VA hospital. Mr. Boats (Earl Billings) comes by to offer advice: the words of an Elinor Wylie poem.

In a documentary scene, the real Harvey Pekar talks about his years as a part-time used-record collector/salesman. The narrative flashes back to 1962. While searching for old records at a yard sale, Harvey meets shy greeting card illustrator Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak). A friendship is formed over a shared love of jazz and comic books.

Returning to 1975, a now famous Crumb is back in Cleveland for a visit. His marriage over, Harvey is lonely and frustrated — he wants to leave a mark on the world. Afterward, a sobering moment in the VA hospital's "deceased" files section leads Harvey to try drawing his own stories, but his lack of drawing talent stops him. An incident at the supermarket revives him, as his animated subconscious goads him: "Are you going to stand there in silence, or are you going to make a mark?" Inspired, Harvey stays up all night writing. At a diner with Crumb, Harv makes a pitch for a new kind of comics. He shows Bob the scripts he’s been working on, and Crumb offers to illustrate them for him.

A montage of classic Pekar quotidian moments culminates with Harvey proudly showing off American Splendor #1 to his VA co-workers. The narrative moves forward to 1984. Harvey has published eight issues of American Splendor to critical acclaim but little financial gain; he's still a "flunky file clerk." Harvey runs into Alice Quinn (Maggie Moore), a woman he briefly knew in college. They catch up on each other’s lives and talk about Theodore Dreiser's novel Jennie Gerhardt. Harvey leaves their encounter feeling more alone than ever before.

Meanwhile in Delaware, Joyce (Hope Davis) is frustrated with her partner in the comic book store, who has sold her copy of American Splendor #8 out from under her. She writes to Harvey, he responds, and they discover they are kindred spirits. Joyce travels to Cleveland to meet Harvey in person. The date begins with a handshake and dinner at a local family restaurant. Back at Harvey's apartment, Joyce is overcome with a bout of nausea and vomiting. A concerned Harvey offers her chamomile tea. Charmed, Joyce suggests they "skip the whole courtship thing" and get married.

It's one week later, and Harvey sees his VA colleague Toby Radloff (Judah Friedlander) sitting in his car eating White Castle sliders. Toby is on his way to Toledo to see the new movie Revenge of the Nerds. Meanwhile, Harvey is on his way to Delaware to marry Joyce and help her move out to Cleveland.

Sitting alongside the real Harvey, the real Joyce Brabner talks about what it was like to become a character in Harvey’s stories.

Now married, Harvey and Joyce go to a screening of Revenge of the Nerds with Toby. Joyce and Toby found the film inspiring, and Harvey found it insipid. Back at their apartment, Joyce struggles with feeling at home amidst all of Harvey’s stuff. Their spat is interrupted by a message from a theater producer who wants to make American Splendor into a play. Harvey and Joyce travel to Los Angeles to see American Splendor: The Play. Things are finally breaking Harvey’s way. But his ascendancy is complicated by Joyce's emotional struggles. She wants a family. Her desires are put aside again because a producer calls to offer Harvey a chance to be a guest on Late Night with David Letterman.

Almost despite himself, Harvey is a hit on the show and comes back for multiple appearances. Meanwhile, Toby becomes an MTV star. Back in Cleveland, a man recognizes Harvey from the Letterman show, but not for the "right" reasons. Harvey is angry and unfulfilled. Meanwhile, Joyce is looking for fulfillment of her own, as a creator and as an activist. Against Harvey’s wishes, she goes away to a peace conference, leaving him at loose ends. One lonely night, Harvey discovers a mysterious lump on his groin.

Joyce is still away on her mission, and a scared and bitter Harvey makes another appearance on the Letterman show. He dons an "On Strike Against NBC" shirt and the show goes downhill from there, winding up in chaos. Joyce finally returns, but she discovers Harvey's lump. Harvey is diagnosed with lymphoma. Joyce suggest he make a comic book of the whole thing, but Harvey just wants to die. Undeterred, Joyce enlists Fred, an artist, to illustrate the experience. Fred brings along his daughter Danielle on their first brainstorming session, and Joyce is smitten with the girl. Harvey reluctantly agrees to participate in the comic, and asks Fred to keep bringing Danielle along.

Harvey's treatment is traumatic and tumultuous. One night, an addled Harvey wonders if he's real or if he is just a character in a comic book, and whether the story will end or continue if he dies. In one continuous take, Harvey wanders through a dreamscape, musing about other individuals he finds in the Cleveland telephone book that are also named Harvey Pekar.

One year later, Harvey and Joyce sign the completed Our Cancer Year. Harvey is declared cancer-free. They adopt Danielle, and Harvey adjusts to being a parent. The real Harvey retires from the VA hospital, and the movie ends with a group hug.



The film was originally intended to be screened on HBO. The script was written before the September 11 attacks, was cast right afterward, and shot in about a month in the fall of 2001.[6]

Though Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini had directed documentaries before, American Splendor was their first narrative feature. Of the film's alternating of fictional portrayals with real-life appearances by Pekar and his friends and family, co-writer/co-director Pulcini recalled, "It really was the only way that made sense to tell that story because we were handed this stack of comic strips where the main character never really looks the same because he’s drawn by so many different artists. We wondered how to stay true to the material, and that’s the concept we came up with. The structure came out of that very naturally. It wasn’t something that we labored over."[7] Berman added that upon meeting Pekar they felt compelled to include him in the film. "We also got to know Harvey even before we wrote the screenplay. We actually went to Cleveland and spent time with Harvey and Joyce, and spoke to them on the phone a lot. Once we spent some time with both of them, we were like, 'Oh my God, we have to put them in the movie!' That was a case where we were still using our documentary instincts and had to figure out a way to include him in it that was a natural fit for the material."[7]

At one point, Pekar meta-references the structure of the film by doing a voice-over for a one-shot of Paul Giamatti playing him by saying "There's our guy. Well, it's me. Or the guy playing me. Though he don't look nothing like me, but whatever." (Pekar and Brabner had been approached previously by actors interested in playing Pekar on film, including Rob Schneider.)[8]

David Letterman refused to appear in the film, and his old network of NBC did not allow the filmmakers to use footage of Pekar's disastrous fourth and sixth appearances on Late Night (aired July 31, 1987 and August 31, 1988, respectively), though they had no problems with the other Pekar appearances that are shown in the film.[9] The supposed "final appearance" was done using oblique camera angles and a voiced-over audio of the incident.[10] (In actuality, Pekar returned for two more appearances on the Letterman show in 1993 & 1994.)[9]

The film's original production budget was $1.5 million, and as the film was coming together, HBO gave the filmmakers more money for post-production, animation, and music.[6]


Mark Suozzo wrote the film's score.

Music played in the film mostly reflects Pekar's affection for avant-garde jazz and American music from the 1920s and 1930s. A couple of songs by American Splendor illustrator Robert Crumb and his band are also featured.

The American Splendor (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) was released by New Line Records in 2003, and featured the following songs:[11]

  1. "Paniots Nine" — Joe Maneri
  2. "Blue Devil Jump" — Jay McShann
  3. "Chasin' Rainbows" — R. Crumb & His Cheap Suit Serenaders
  4. "On the Sunny Side of the Street" — Lester Young with the Oscar Peterson Trio
  5. "Oh, Lady Be Good!" — Dizzy Gillespie
  6. "Ain't That Peculiar" — Marvin Gaye
  7. "Looking Suite: The Shortest Weekend / After Alice (So Sweet, So Sad)" — Mark Suozzo/Global Stage Orchestra
  8. "Stardust" — Dizzy Gillespie
  9. "Hula Medley" — R. Crumb & His Cheap Suit Serenaders
  10. "T'aint Nobody's Bizness If I Do" — Jay McShann
  11. "My Favorite Things" — John Coltrane
  12. "Time Passes Strangely: Cancer Treatment / Retirement Party" — Mark Suozzo
  13. "Ain't That Peculiar" — Chocolate Genius

The following songs are also played — in whole, or in part — during the film:


On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 94% approval rating, based on 186 reviews, with an average rating of 8.29/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Exhilarating both stylistically and for its entertaining, moving portrayal of an everyman, American Splendor is a portrait of a true underground original."[12] On Metacritic, the film has a score of 90 out of 100, based on 42 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim."[13]

American Splendor won the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, in addition to the award for Best Adapted Screenplay from the Writers Guild of America. At the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, the film received the FIPRESCI critics award.[14] American Splendor was given the Guardian New Directors Award at the 2003 Edinburgh International Film Festival.[15] It was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2003 Academy Awards.

Columnist Jaime Wolf wrote a laudatory review of the film in Slate, also drawing attention to formal parallels with Woody Allen's Annie Hall and other Allen films.[16]

Pekar wrote about the effects of the film in various stories published in American Splendor: Our Movie Year (Ballantine Books, 2004).[17]

Awards and nominations

Award Category Nominee(s) Result Ref.
Academy Awards Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay Pulcini and Springer Berman Nominated [18]
American Film Institute Awards Movie of the Year American Splendor Won [19]
Awards Circuit Community Awards Best Adapted Screenplay Springer Berman and Pulcini Nominated [19]
Belgian Syndicate of Cinema Critics Grand Prix American Splendor Nominated
Boston Society of Film Critics Best Screenplay Pulcini and Springer Berman Won [20]
Cannes Film Festival FIPRESCI Prize (Un Certain Regard) American Splendor Won [14]
Central Ohio Film Critics Association Best Screenplay, Adapted Springer Berman and Pulcini Won [19]
Best Supporting Actress Hope Davis Nominated
Chicago Film Critics Association Most Promising Filmmaker Pulcini and Springer Berman Won
Best Actor Paul Giamatti Nominated
Best Actress Hope Davis Nominated
Best Film American Splendor Nominated
Best Screenplay Pulcini and Springer Berman Nominated
Chlotrudis Awards Best Adapted Screenplay Pulcini and Springer Berman Won [19]
Best Movie American Splendor Nominated
Best Director Pulcini and Springer Berman Nominated
Best Actor Paul Giamatti Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Hope Davis Nominated
Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association Awards Russell Smith Award Pulcini and Springer Berman Won [19]
Best Actor Paul Giamatti Nominated
Best Picture American Splendor Nominated
Deauville American Film Festival Critics Award (Prix de la Critique Internationale) American Splendor Won [19]
Grand Special Prize American Splendor Nominated
Edinburgh International Film Festival Guardian New Directors Award Pulcini and Springer Berman Won
Florida Film Critics Circle Awards Pauline Kael Breakout Award Pulcini and Springer Berman Won [19]
Ghent International Film Festival Grand Prix American Splendor Nominated [19]
Gijón International Film Festival Best Feature American Splendor Nominated [19]
Gold Derby Awards Adapted Screenplay American Splendor Nominated [19]
Golden Globe Awards Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Hope Davis Nominated [21]
Golden Trailer Awards Best Voice Over Harvey Pekar Nominated [19]
Gotham Awards Breakthrough Director Award Springer Berman and Pulcini Won [19]
Independent Spirit Awards Best Film American Splendor Nominated [22]
Best Director Pulcini and Springer Berman Nominated
Best Male Lead Paul Giamatti Nominated
Best Supporting Male Judah Friedlander Nominated
Best Screeplay Pulcini and Springer Berman Nominated
International Online Cinema Awards Best Adapted Screenplay Springer Berman and Pulcini Nominated [19]
London Film Critics' Circle Screenwriter of the Year Springer Berman and Pulcini Nominated [19]
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Best Film American Splendor Won [23]
Best Screenplay Pulcini and Springer Berman Won
Montréal Comedy Festival 'Just for Laughs' Festival Prize American Splendor Won [19]
National Board of Review Breakthrough Performance by an Actor Paul Giamatti Won [19]
Special Recognition for Excellence in Filmmaking Pulcini and Springer Berman Won
National Society of Film Critics Best Film American Splendor Won [24]
Best Screenplay Pulcini and Springer Berman Won
New York Film Critics Circle Best Actress Hope Davis Won [25]
Best First Film American Splendor Won
Online Film & Television Association Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium Springer Berman and Pulcini Nominated [19]
Best First Screenplay Springer Berman and Pulcini Nominated
Best Titles Sequence American Splendor Nominated
Online Film Critics Society Awards Best Breakthrough Filmmaker Springer Berman and Pulcini Won [19]
Best Actor Paul Giamatti Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay Springer Berman and Pulcini Nominated
Phoenix Film Critics Society Awards Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role Paul Giamatti Nominated [19]
Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role Hope Davis Nominated
Best Screenplay, Adapted Pulcini and Springer Berman Nominated
Best Film Editing Robert Pulcini Nominated
Best Use of Previously Published or Recorded Music American Splendor Nominated
San Diego Film Critics Society Awards Best Screenplay, Adapted Springer Berman and Pulcini Won [19]
São Paulo International Film Festival Best Feature Film American Splendor Nominated [19]
Satellite Awards Best Actor — Motion Picture Musical or Comedy Paul Giamatti Nominated [26]
Best Actress — Motion Picture Musical or Comedy Hope Davis Nominated
Best Director Pulcini and Springer Berman Nominated
Best Film — Musical or Comedy American Splendor Nominated
Best Screeplay — Adapted Pulcini and Springer Berman Nominated
Seattle Film Critics Awards Best Picture American Splendor Won [19]
Best Actress Hope Davis Won
Best Screenplay, Adapted Springer Berman and Pulcini Won
Best Actor Paul Giamatti Nominated
Southeastern Film Critics Association Awards Best Picture American Splendor Nominated [19]
Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize Dramatic American Splendor Won [27]
Toronto Film Critics Association Awards Best First Feature Springer Berman and Pulcini Won [19]
Village Voice Film Poll Best Screenplay Springer Berman and Pulcini Won [19]
Best Film American Splendor Nominated
Best Performance Paul Giamatti Nominated
Best Supporting Performance Hope Davis Nominated
Writers Guild of America Award Best Screenplay — Adapted Pulcini and Springer Berman Won [28]


  1. ^ "AMERICAN SPLENDOR". Optimum Releasing. British Board of Film Classification. Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  2. ^ American Splendor at Box Office Mojo
  3. ^ a b c Mitchell, Elvis (August 15, 2003). "FILM REVIEW; A Comics Guy, Outside the Box". The New York Times. Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  4. ^ American Splendor on IMDb
  5. ^ Hutcherson entry, Internet Movie Database. Accessed July 25, 2019.
  6. ^ a b Kaufman, Anthony. "Bob & Shari & Harvey & Joyce; “American Splendor” Goes from Small Panel to Big Screen," Indiewire (Aug 14, 2003).
  7. ^ a b McKittrick, Christopher (August 10, 2015). "Follow the Book's Lead: Berman and Pulcini on Ten Thousand Saints". Creative Screenwriting. Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  8. ^ Morrow, Fiona. "Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner: The party poopers," The Independent (13 January 2004).
  9. ^ a b "The Story Behind Harvey Pekar’s Infamous Last Letterman Interview," Accessed July 21, 2019.
  11. ^ "Various – American Splendor (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)," Discogs. Accessed June 14, 2019.
  12. ^ American Splendor at Rotten Tomatoes
  13. ^ American Splendor at Metacritic
  14. ^ a b "FIPRESCI - Awards: 2003". Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  15. ^ Pulver, Andrew. "The albino, the mineshaft or the comic-book artist?", The Guardian (August 25, 2003).
  16. ^ Wolf, Jaime (September 24, 2003). "Harvey, Meet Woody: American Splendor vs. Annie Hall". Slate. Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  17. ^ Pekar, Harvey, and various illustrators. American Splendor: Our Movie Year (Ballantine Books, 2004) ISBN 0-345-47937-8
  18. ^ King, Susan. "Oh, the splendor of an unlikely hero," Los Angeles Times (FEB. 5, 2004).
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y "American Splendor (2003)," Internet Movie Database. Accessed Oct. 4, 2019.
  20. ^ "BSFC Winners 2000s," Boston Society of Film Critics website. Accessed July 25, 2019.
  21. ^ "ODD NEWS: 61st Annual Golde Globe Award nominees," UPI (DEC. 18, 2003).
  22. ^ ""In America," "American Splendor," and "Raising Victor Vargas" Top Nominees for 2004 IFP Independent". indieWire. December 4, 2003. Retrieved August 20, 2012.
  23. ^ "'American Splendor' top film by LA Critics," UPI (Jan. 8, 2004).
  24. ^ King, Susan. "Critics Group Names 'American Splendor' Top Film: The National Society of Film Critics also honors Bill Murray and Charlize Theron as best actors and Clint Eastwood as best director of 2003," Los Angeles Times (January 4, 2004).
  25. ^ Brick, Michael. "Minus Frills, Film Critics Pick Winners Of Awards," New York Times (JAN. 4, 2004).
  26. ^ Maldonado, Ryan. "Satellites pix picked: Noms include 'Whale Rider,' 'Rings,' 'Mighty Wind"," Variety (December 17, 2003).
  27. ^ 2003 Sundance Film Festival, Sundance Institute Digital Archive. Accessed July 25, 2019.
  28. ^ Reuters. "Hollywood writers honor Coppola, 'Splendor'," (February 22, 2004).

External links

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