Erin Brockovich (2000): Soderbergh’s Biopic, Starring Julia Roberts in her Oscar Winning Performance

Universal and Columbia (Jerzey Films Production)

One of the 2000 Best Picture nominees was “Erin Brockovich,” directed by Steven Soderbergh. Though based on a true story, the film feels familiar from previous corporate-malfeasance thrillers, such as “Norma Rae” and “A Civil Action,” with the expected benevolent messages about corporate greed, self-esteem, and place of women in society.

In the same vein of lone-justice crowd-pleasing pictures, such as “Norma Rae” and “Silkwood,” in 1979 and 1983, respectively, “Erin Brockovich” pays tribute to a working-class woman, who dares to fight a corrupt capitalistic system, because she’s both firmly stubborn and genuinely naive to know otherwise.

Assigned to do some routine paperback, Erin (Julia Roberts at her sexiest and most appealing) stumbles upon a hidden epidemic: Dozens of residents near Hinkley have fallen victim to tumors, degenerative organs and other afflictions. Predictably, the ills are caused by Pacific Gas and Elecrtic, the industrial plant on the edge of town, which has employed a deadly form of chromium as an antitrust agent, thereby contaminating the water supply.

The picture is enjoyable but too mainstream and middlebrow. Who in 2000 will disagree with the anti-Big Business message of “Erin Brockovich” a well-made biopicture centering on a classic American underdog, defined by feisty determination and commitment to the cause. In the end, she triumphs against all odds, not only in defeating the corrupt company but also operating against the wishes of her initially reluctant and hesitant boss (played by Albert Finney).

In its crowd-pleasing qualities and bravura star performance by Julia Roberts, “Erin Brockovich” offers a similar message–and emotional pleasure-that “Norma Rae,” Martin Ritt’s 1979 biopic had, a better picture that earned Sally Field her first Best Actress Oscar.

Several critics noted the feminist fairytale nature of Susannah Grant’s sharp but manipulative scenario, which turned a “Norma Rae” type of heroine into a similar protagonist that was the focus of Steve Zaillian’s “A Civil Action.” Zaillian’s honorable film, boasting strong performances from John Travolta and Robert Duvall, was marked by gloomy mood and defeated results, which may explain why it was a commercial flop.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 5

Picture, produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, and Stacey Sher
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay (Original): Susannah Grant
Actress: Julia Roberts
Supporting Actor: Albert Finney

Oscar Awards: 1


Oscar Context

“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with Ridley Scott’s historical epic “Gladiator,” which won, two Soderbergh films, “Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic,” and the schmaltzy romantic drama “Chocolate,” which was the weakest nominee, artistically.

Julia Roberts won the Oscar at her third nomination. She was previously nominated in the supporting league for “Steel Magnolias,” in 1988, and in the lead category, for “Pretty Woman,” in 1990.