Saturday, July 26, 2014

Steven Soderbergh | Erin Brockovich

missing the ball

by Douglas Messerli


Susannah Grant (screenplay), Steven Soderbergh (director) Erin Brockovich / 2000


I am certain that I first saw Steven Soderbergh’s film Erin Brockovich when it premiered in 2000; but I have seen it so many times since that I no longer can recall my first feelings about it.  Certainly it is the kind of commercial movie that I occasionally enjoy watching—a morally righteous presentation of an underdog, Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts, playing, in this case, the out-of-work, nearly broke, under-educated mother of three young children) who proves her intelligence and competence by going up against a huge, evil business empire (in this instance Pacific Gas and Electric) by working with sometimes equal frisson with a small-time lawyer, Ed Mastry (Albert Finney).   

     Surely a film that fits so nicely into the genre (which includes films such as All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor) must have immediately appealed to me, who, admittedly, have always secretly defined myself as a sort of outsider prophet. Brockovich’s amazing pluck, devotion to her cause, and empathetic embracement of those hundreds of individuals whom she discovered had been suffering the cancers and other diseases caused by PG&E’s callous use of unlined cooling tanks containing the dread carcinogenic hexavalent chromium 6 made her the kind of unintentional hero who any moral citizen can admire—despite the fact that this very sexual being with two previous husbands and, suddenly, a current, live-in boyfriend who is somewhat inexplicably devoted to her children, jokingly describes using her cleavage as entry to the division of country records and later reports to the astonished law firm working with her boss that she was able to obtain the 600 some signatures necessary because she performed “sexual favors”:


       Kurt Potter: Wha…how did you do this?

       Erin Brockovich: Well, um seeing as how I have no

          brains or legal expertise, and Ed here was losing

          all faith in the system, am I right?

        Ed Masry: Oh, yea, completely. No faith, no faith…

        Erin: I just went out there and performed sexual

           favors. Six hundred and thirty-four blow jobs in

           five days… I’m really quite tired.


     The truth—at least the way the movie portrays it—is apparently that Brockovich’s casual dress and down-to-earth manner is what helps her to communicate with the Hinkley natives in a way that the lawyers cannot. Even the “deep throat”-like revelation of a former Pacific Gas and Electric employee, Charles Embry (Tracey Walker) that the company was ordered from headquarters to destroy evidentiary information, is based on  what “she looks like,” the fact that she looks like a woman to whom you could tell anything—everything.     All of this helps to make the former Miss Wichita (in truth the real Erin Brockovich was crowned the far more glamorous-sounding “Miss Pacific Coast”) an even more miraculous and formidable figure, a woman who, thanks to Julia Roberts, seems to have everything: beauty, family, brains—and suddenly a career! How can you not love this astonishing figure?

     But this time, watching the film on my home DVD the other night, something else kept pulling at me as I watched the loveable flick. While early on in the film Erin describes herself as a very ordinary person—“I just wanna be a good mom, a nice person, a decent citizen. Just wanna take good care of my kids. You know?”—as the film progresses, she becomes fewer and fewer of any of those things she desires. Even though she eventually is earning enough money to pay for daycare for her children, she continues to leave them in the care of her “biker” neighbor, George (Aaron Eckhart). When, understandably frustrated with her lack of personal interest in him, he leaves her, she proceeds to lug them around both to her office and to her homestead visits of potential clients. We have to presume that she just hasn’t been able to find the time to get a proper care person or to enter them into nearby schools.     Previously, she has spent so much time away from them that her son, Matthew (Scotty Leavenworth) and her daughter, Katie (Gemmenne de la Peña) show signs of strong resentment about their mother’s absence, anger which she meets with equal frustration instead of the necessary sympathy. Her absences have also meant that she has painfully missed important events in her childrens’ lives, including her youngest daughter’s first word, reported by George to have been “ball.”

      If at times Brokovitch seems to taking a slightly feminist position, arguing, for example, that neither of her childrens’ fathers cared about what she might think or feel, at other times in this work it is quite apparent that the character is still entirely dependent upon men, particularly the kindness and passivity of George. Obviously, one could argue that this paradox is what faces many women with the competing pulls of family and career, and we sympathize, as does the script, with Brokovich’s plight.

      Yet we cannot quite escape the fact that this woman is still a very needy girl, so desperate for recognition of her abilities and that she is nearly willing to give anything for the attention; as she demands of George:


   Erin Brockovich: For the first time in my life, I got people respecting

        me. Please, don't ask me to give it up. fact, she does not give “it” up, but does in some very real ways abandon her children and most definitely sacrifices George in the bargain.

     Susannah Grant’s script attempts to ameliorate this trade-off slightly by having her son read one of the dispositions about a young girl his age suffering cancer because of chemical effects. And in the final scene, Brockovich takes George with her to visit one of the suffering families so that he might see what he made possible by allowing her to work.

      Nonetheless, at film’s end, as the former Midwestern beauty queen stands in her office with her two million dollar check in reward for her remarkable achievements, we can’t help but feel that she has somehow missed the ball—that, at the very least, she has left something behind.

      In real life, if there is such a thing, Brockovich married again, raising her children with her new husband Eric Ellis, a relationship that also ended in divorce. I have no information on how her children turned out. But perhaps the film does hint at some of the tensions that would actually recur later in the real hero’s life. Along with one of her ex-husbands, the character upon whom George was based, attempted to sue her in a bungled con-job, suggesting that she had had an affair with her boss Ed Mastry. Fortunately, neither Brockovich nor Mastry took the bait. What is clear, however, is that real life can never be as good or bad as a motion picture portrays it—nor as big or small as the figures it represents.


Los Angeles, July 26, 2014