Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner: The party poopers

The film American Splendor may be the toast of the critics, but the real-life couple it depicts remain underwhelmed by the celebrity it has brought them. Fiona Morrow seeks them out

Tuesday 13 January 2004 01:00 GMT

As a college drop-out, failed army recruit and low-level hospital file clerk for 37 years, Harvey Pekar would be many people's idea of a loser. But we're a long way from Cleveland, where Pekar lives with his wife, Joyce Brabner and Danielle, a teenager the couple brought into their family.

This unlikely group are the inspiration and stars of American Splendor, an imaginative, fresh-faced biopic that happily juxtaposes dramatisations, documentary footage and animation. The film is currently doing spry business at the UK box office. In fact, as directed by documentary film-makers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, it's proved the surprise hit of 2003. It was voted best picture by the National Society of Film Critics, beating Clint Eastwood's Mystic River.

The title comes from Pekar's underground comic-book series, in which the trials and tribulations of an ordinary guy (Pekar) are catalogued with unflinching honesty; he writes, and a bunch of cartoonists (including Robert Crumb) provide the images. The film brings to life many of the scenes from the book - with Pekar himself providing the voice-over. We are introduced to him as a twice-divorced, forlorn bachelor. He met Brabner after a short correspondence when, on the strength of one date, the pair decided to get married.

In person, Pekar is one of the least-animated individuals I've ever met. He appears simply to sink into his surroundings, looking more than a little bored. In contrast, Brabner is all beady eyes and pointy edginess, hardly waiting for a question to be finished before flinging the answer straight back at me. There are no flies on either of them.

American Splendor sells a meagre 5,000 copies a year and, now, retired from the hospital, Pekar continues to enhance his small income with book and music reviews. He's a bit of a nerd, obsessive about both literature (he's something of an expert in the evolution and history of fiction) and jazz (he met Crumb while rifling through LPs at a yard sale).

But despite the fact that he and his family pretty much live on the breadline, Pekar almost let the movie deal pass him by.

"It's a perfect example of why I take care of business,' notes Brabner. "Harvey was told by a mutual friend that a producer named Ted Hope was very interested in American Splendor." Brabner cocks her thumb at her husband. "But he's depressed. He figures it'll never work out, so he doesn't bother to call."

"I find this out a couple of months - or maybe even a year later - so I call this guy up directly and we had a deal in five minutes."

It's not that Pekar isn't happy for the movie to have been made: "It's better than it not existing," he admits in a voice that defies classification. If its owner is laconic and circumspect, the voice is a wild thing, hitting all manner of discords and flying from one octave to another, sometimes mid-syllable.

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"It brings some hope for the future," he continues, expressionless. "I'm hoping I can get some work from it."

To prepare for filming, the directors immersed themselves in American movies from the 1970s - The Deer Hunter, Taxi Driver, Five Easy Pieces, Fat City - wanting to marry the look of the film both to Pekar's neo-realist style and the Cleveland milieu, known colloquially as the rust belt.

That they should have had to travel back three decades in American cinema to find films about regular, unbeautiful people leading regular, unbeautiful lives underlines what unusual subjects Pekar and Brabner make these days.

"We'd like to let you know that as Americans we are not that unusual," says Brabner. "We're not all stupid, we're not all politically ignorant. We don't all have everything perfect and, if it's not perfect, we don't all just throw things away. We don't all divorce in haste at the first sign of trouble and tragedy doesn't give us all deep, soul-searching insight. It doesn't give us all an opportunity to grow."

I ask Pekar if making the film has given him any insights into his own character and he looks completely taken aback. "I don't know," he frowns. "I did think the film caught the spirit of my work, though."

Paul Giamatti, who's since been nominated for a Golden Globe, plays Pekar in the dramatised sections of the film. He's instantly right, all bug eyes and hangdog miserabilism.

"We did turn down some actors," proffers Brabner. "We were approached by..." She turns to her husband: "Are we gonna say who?"

Without a moment's thought, Pekar answers: "What? Rob Schneider?"

"Yeah, Rob Schneider," Brabner echoes, before adding, lazily, "I know it's not politic to be dropping names, but we knew it would be an absolute disaster for him to play Harvey."

I ask if they're happy with how their lives have been presented on screen. "I think we feel that everything is honest in spirit even when things have been changed slightly," says Brabner, before wrinkling her brow and beginning to list the parts that "jangle" with her: "Harvey did not become a vegetarian until after he married me, nor did he have a pet cat until after I brought mine to live with him. Similarly, I'm not really such a hypochondriac.

"I am talking a lot for Harvey," explains Brabner, because his voice is fading."

"Naw," counters Pekar, suddenly roused. "You're just getting in earlier than I am."

Brabner sniffs, frowns then throws her arms wide. "OK then, take it away. Give her your great insights."

I mutter something about how tiring talking to journalists must be and Brabner is back like a shot: "Harvey, sit up and look alert. This is the first time you've ever talked to anybody about this movie." Then, to me "We don't mind if we have good questions - boy, have we had some awful questions."

Though she's clearly formidable, I like Brabner's feistiness. Still, I can't help but wonder how she got along with Hope Davis, the actress charged with playing her on screen.

"Hope understood me from the inside out," she says, I suspect ironically. "She was terribly uncomfortable with the idea of being around me. We had this one meeting and I just decided, 'OK, I'm going to tell you everything that's not in the script, what's going on behind this.' And she freaked out."

"She told the producer that she imagined me staring at her and burning holes into her like this great power. So I was asked to stay away from her when she was on the set."

I ask Brabner if that was upsetting and she sniffs: "Well it made things a little awkward at mealtimes."

The way she brushes off the snub reminds me of something co-director Robert Pulcini had told me - that one of the things that most fascinated him about Harvey is how he remains his own person no matter what the circumstance, regardless of the company he's in. I'd have to say that Joyce maintains the same, if not exactly sangfroid, then certainly a similar incapacity for game-playing.

"People who know you, know about your faults and foibles anyway," she adds, unprompted. "Who cares about the rest? Who cares about the audience, a bunch of strangers, seeing somebody pretend to be you sitting on the toilet? What do they think we do? Send out for it? We make our own poop." She jerks her thumb at Pekar again, "He does too."

Pekar leans forward a fraction and with what, for him, passes for a grin, adds a long drawn out, "Yeah."

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