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Cleveland in all its splendor

August 17, 2003|Steven Barrie-Anthony Times Staff Writer | Times Staff Writer

ANNE HECHE is wearing a typically gorgeous designer gown and looking typically gorgeous in it. She plays celeb perfectly: grudgingly approaching the print media area on the red carpet outside Hollywood's Cinerama Dome and offering a typical sound bite -- "I'm so excited to be here with this group of artists. Very excited."

"Anne! Anne!" screams the inevitable horde of onlookers, trying to snag autographs to hawk on eBay. Nearby, Harvey Pekar stands amid the commotion looking decidedly unimpressed. He is wearing a black suit and an "American Splendor" T-shirt, his neck perpetually hunched. "It's no big deal -- a lot of advertising," he says. "With the money I get from this, plus my pension from the VA hospital, I'm just hoping I can survive. I just wanna keep going. The most meaningful thing in life, for me, is breathing."

Pekar has spent the last 25 years documenting his mundane and often unpleasant existence as a Cleveland file clerk in his American Splendor comic books. His story has spawned multiple appearances on Letterman, an off-Broadway play and, now, this evening's biopic, featuring Paul Giamatti as Pekar.

"I'm attracted to deliberate, willful pariahs," Giamatti explains. "To some kind of working-class rage that's about as far from my background as you can get."

Giamatti is fast becoming a critics' darling. As for Pekar: "I don't know that I'm a figure," he says. "My number is in the phone book, and I don't get a lot of calls."

Time for a group picture, so Giamatti stands next to Pekar and Judah Friedlander stands next to the character he portrays, Pekar's real-life buddy and avowed nerd, Toby Radloff. Friedlander grins idiotically for the camera -- mouth agape, eyes wide -- and gives two thumbs-up. Radloff, mimicking the actor who is mimicking him, gives a thumbs-up too.

"I feel great," Radloff says in his loud staccato voice, each word deliberate. "I'm in a big movie.... Afterward, I'm going back to my government job. Unless Hollywood calls again." He takes out a battered camera and snaps pictures of the photographers who are taking pictures of him.

The afterparty on the roof of the ArcLight Cinemas parking structure is straight out of the movie. "I was trying to bring to life the streets of Cleveland," says veteran party designer Billy Butchkavitz.Multicolored spotlights illuminate vintage cars from the early '60s through the '80s; there are nearly 60 8-by-8-foot blowups of American Splendor covers; more than 5,000 LPs are piled in crates underneath the buffet tables; and white-carpeted vignettes re-create working-class living rooms, replete with beaten-up couches. "We went through all the thrift stores to find this old junk," Butchkavitz says.

Faye Dunaway congratulates one of the film's two writer-directors, Robert Pulcini, and everybody tells Giamatti that "it was beautiful," that he was "fantastic." A live jazz band starts up.

Pekar's wife, Joyce Brabner, surveys the party with a frown.

"This could've been somebody's salary on the film," she tells the producer, Ted Hope. "It's a little startling until I realize that I don't have to do all the dishes afterward."

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