Star vehicle? Erin Brockovich begins with Julia Roberts already in close-up, eyes eager as salesmen in matched gabardine suits, lips vibrant and playful as double-dutch jump-ropes, skin glistening in a perfectly even light, which borrows its tint from the wall behind her, as if she were posed in a photographer’s studio. Her oodles of hair–magically brown, blond and red all at once–rise majestically in the pile of a working-class heroine. Her wire earrings take the only form they could: little hearts. Speaking straight to the camera, brightly, twangily, Roberts shares a few personal details in the most disarming fashion, as a way of selling herself.
It seems you’re watching a job interview, and Roberts, as the title character, isn’t doing so well. Thanks to her candor, you quickly learn she’s got three young children, no visible means of support and a wardrobe composed solely of handkerchief-size dresses, as if she’d economized by purchasing only so many square inches of clothes. To her interviewer, the effect is doubly disconcerting. Not only does Erin lack qualifications for the job–she’s applying to be a nurse in a medical office, on the strength of having cared for her kids–but she’s shown up looking like a cocktail waitress, which makes the male, middle-aged doctor act uncomfortably thirsty.
Later, seeking a payday from an auto accident, she chooses to testify in court wearing a neck brace and a little form-fitting polka-dotted number, with a neckline that plunges to Buenos Aires. Such behavior eventually prompts her lawyer, Ed Masry (Albert Finney), to challenge her taste in clothes. “I like how I look,” she shoots back–which is the correct answer for the character and the correct answer for Julia Roberts. Many, many moviegoers like her to dress this way; and so she does, in a role that keeps her onscreen for virtually the entire length of the film.
Yes, Erin Brockovich is a star vehicle. More than that, it’s a perfect match between star and vehicle, with Roberts playing a down-on-her-luck but fiercely determined single mom, who just happens to be a former Miss Wichita. (She still has the tiara and at one point wears it to bed.) While occupying the center of each scene, she gets to be chummy, ingenuous, exasperated, furious, sly, empathetic and at last, following the pattern of Pretty Woman, rich.
And yet there’s even more, since Erin Brockovich is a based-on-a-true-story movie. In the early 1990s, the real Brockovich, though unencumbered with a law degree, managed to organize the citizens of a small town to sue a grossly negligent corporation. The plaintiffs won–and so she gave moral and material aid to hundreds of people, while doing a little something for her own family as well.
So now, at a moment when America’s corporate apologists are trying to prevent injured citizens from taking to the law, Julia Roberts has marched her stardom squarely into the path of the tort-reform movement. Granting due respect to the differences, I might almost liken her to the fellow who blocked the tanks going into Tiananmen Square. With those legs, she won’t be easy to knock down.
In fact–I use the phrase in its strict meaning–Erin Brockovich stands so firmly on Roberts’s legs that it can name a corporate bad guy: Pacific Gas & Electric. Let me say that again: Pacific Gas & Electric, Pacific Gas & Electric, Pacific Gas & Electric. The movie is so indelicate as to assert, without fear of incurring legal action against Universal Pictures, that PG&E poisoned the residents of Hinkley, California, knew it had poisoned them and actively lied about the poisoning to the victims, who therefore thought their tumors were the fruit of bad luck and so went on drinking carcinogenic water. You can’t make this stuff up, nor do you have to.