Erin Brockovich is the quintessential star vehicle--for nearly two hours, Julia Roberts is almost never out of camera range--but it's also the kind of message movie we haven't seen for a while. It's the latest and biggest of the "feisty woman" movies, eponymously titled and mostly true tales of working women who, against impossibly long odds, defeat the enemies of the people. Critics and audiences are having such a fine time with the film because it ladles a hefty helping of sex appeal into its Capra-esque message.
The plot, sans sexiness, has a familiar ring. The central figure in Norma Rae (1979)--Sally Fields, in an Oscar-winning performance--is stuck in a dead-end job in a southern textile mill. She discovers her true vocation when a labor organizer comes to town. At the film's memorable climax, she implores her fellow workers to defy the company; she is Joan of Arc amid the industrial din, valiantly holding up a sign that reads, simply, "Union."
While Norma Rae is fiction, the movies that have followed are true stories. They name names. The 1983 film Silkwood features a line worker at Kerr-McGee's nuclear plant in Oklahoma--Meryl Streep, in one of those brilliantly self-effacing performances that are her trademark. Horrified at the miseries that beset her fellow workers, she sets out to challenge the company's shoddy safety practices. Eventually she discovers a far more terrible corporate crime: The company is shipping out defective nuclear rods that could launch Three Mile Islands across the land. Karen Silkwood takes her story to the union, but before the company can be exposed and brought to heel, she's killed in a suspicious highway accident. Marie (1985) has a happier ending. Marie Ragghianti (Sissy Spacek) works her way up the ranks of the Tennessee prison bureaucracy and gets appointed to the parole board. While she's supposed to be a naïf, a vote in Governor Ray Blanton's pocket, she unearths corruption that reaches all the way to the statehouse. She hooks up with a lawyer--Fred Thompson, now a U.S. senator, who portrays himself in the film--and her courtroom testimony, delivered despite threats on her life, puts the wrongdoers behind bars.
Erin Brockovich is a less-than-plausible candidate for the Joan of Arc role. She's not just a working-class gal; she's truly down and out. Years earlier, as a teenage Miss Wichita, she epitomized the conventional, picket-fenced American dream, but all that remains of it is her crown. She would have been a star on Queen for a Day, the old TV show where women in miserable circumstances competed for audience sympathy: mother of three young kids, twice divorced, out of work. In the opening scene, she flunks a job interview, and after she's ushered out, she finds a ticket on her car. Adding telling insult to injury, while extracting the ticket she breaks one of her talon-like fingernails. Then, just as she drives off, she gets hit by a car. The ensuing lawsuit is supposed to be her big payday, but Ed Masry, the broken-down lawyer who represents her (played by Albert Finney, who looks like a heart attack waiting to happen) blows it, then blows her off. She's left with $74 in her bank account, a sick child, a zombie for a baby-sitter, and no prospects. And if that weren't enough grief, a motorcycle gang has just moved in next door.
All those tribulations are visited on her in the first 15 minutes of the film. Then the message part kicks in. Erin talks her way--she really badgers and bullies her way--into a job with Masry. While filing documents in what's supposedly a routine real estate transaction, she unearths some medical records. She gets curious, and in a display of initiative that nothing in her life history prepares her for, she turns into a bulldog investigator.
Like Karen Silkwood, Erin Brockovich discovers a tale of death and deception: Pacific Gas and Electric Company poisoned the water supply of Hinkley, a hardscrabble California farm town, then tried to lie and buy its way out of the mess. Erin convinces hundreds of families to sue the company, and she persuades Masry to bet the ranch on the case. In the nick of time, she unearths the crucial memo that links the top brass to the cover-up. The result is a $333 million judgment against PG&E, the biggest civil damage award ever.
If only the right thing were always so obvious, good and evil so clearly distinguished, success so easy and sweet, as this fable would have us believe. "Feisty woman" films showcase Hollywood on its best, most public-spirited, behavior. They're overstuffed with good liberal motives, intended to raise--more precisely, to mold--social consciousness. Hence the utter lack of ambiguity. The Establishment, whether the corporate or political elite, is irredeemably corrupt. (Erin Brockovich doesn't even hint at the real difficulties in the PG&E lawsuit--for instance, the likelihood that the myriad diseases in Hinkley weren't caused by the toxins PG&E loosed there.) The heroine is Everywoman.
It's hard to imagine a "feisty man" genre. Men are forever fighting uphill battles for some version of justice; only when women do so is it a niche-market venture. The nature of women's stories is also different. When men embark on messianic campaigns against wrongdoers, they're motivated by a cause. The clients in A Civil Action are essentially beside the point to their lawyer (John Travolta), who's driven to the poorhouse over a principle. The Brown & Williamson tobacco company researcher in The Insider (Russell Crowe) is consumed by his need to expose the sins committed by the tobacco industry. But the women happen upon their vocations. (The serendipity of Erin Brockovich's finding those out-of-place medical records, and everything that happens afterward, is the modern counterpart of the ingénue being "discovered" in Schwab's Drugstore in Hollywood.) And their response reflects the feminist mantra that the personal is political. The passion for justice doesn't emerge from the abstract but rather from a way of knowing that's rooted in empathy, from tales of individual lives--the dying nuclear plant workers in Silkwood, the used-up mill workers in Norma Rae.
All these crusaders pay a heavy personal price for their commitment. Spouses leave; bankruptcy looms; death threats are muttered and, in one instance, carried out. Yet while the men act with little hesitation--with scant consciousness that they're even making a decision--feisty women are forever balancing notions of justice with their intensely personal struggles for self-liberation. All of them have escaped from, or been abandoned by, their significant others. Erin Brockovich's two spouses have high-tailed it out of town; Marie Ragghianti is a battered divorcée trying to raise a severely handicapped child; Norma Rae, also divorced, is derided as the town slut; and Karen Silkwood's ex has taken her kids away.
As time passes, most of these women acquire new boyfriends, but their domestic problems are far from over. There are moments of recrimination and regret, breakups and makeups--they're inevitable, since the men want their women, while the women want their new public lives. As mothers, these women generally leave a lot to be desired. Erin converts her sweetheart of a boyfriend, the ponytailed biker next door, into a baby-sitter who sees far more of the kids than she does; Norma Rae stops cleaning the house and cooking for her family. There's no energy left over for sex--feistiness is expended elsewhere--and this too is a source of bitterness. The public morality in these movies may be tidily Manichaean, but the personal trade-offs are a mess. Even as they applaud the heroism of feisty women, these films invite the audience to question whether they have made the right choices.
Until now, "feisty woman" movies have been quite puritanical about sex. The actresses who were cast as Norma Rae, Karen Silkwood, and Marie Ragghianti are all pleasing to the eye--despite their earnest intentions, these are still Hollywood films--but they're outfitted to hide that fact. Erin Brockovich turns conventional gender politics, with its queasiness about sex, on its head. It deliciously subverts the solemnity of the political message, and that's what makes it an entertainment, not a two-hour public service announcement. In her skin-tight mini, loopy gold earrings, and low-cut blouse, Erin dresses like a whore, Pretty Woman in a law office. She uses her body for all it's worth.
Of course, leading ladies have been deploying their sex appeal to get their way since the dawn of cinema (probably since the dawn of time), but they have never been so out there about it. When the women who work in Masry's firm shun Erin, she doesn't give a damn. "Why do you dress that way?" Masry challenges her. "I like how I look," she shouts back.
It's all about Erin--indeed, everything in this movie is all about Erin. While the heroines of all the "feisty woman" films embark on voyages of self-discovery, Erin Brockovich ventures into the land of narcissism. Remarkably, she gets away with it. Her easy sexiness wins friends among the men of Hinkley and titillates Masry. When she leans over a counter and pushes her elbows together, creating an eyeful of cleavage, an awestruck clerk is persuaded to let her xerox damning PG&E memos. "They're called boobs," she says, naming her not-so-secret weapon.
Tight skirts are not just sexy; they are code, these days, for working class, and daring to wear them means daring to challenge authority. The movie makers have put a heavy thumb on the scale, and the reasons to root for Erin keep multiplying. When she tangles with the female attorney for whom she's working, the fix is in. The lawyer, upper-crust and arrogant, is a caricature of asexuality, a cartoon figure so pallid in appearance as to resemble a specter in a gray flannel suit. She's totally vanquished when Erin puts on a memory show that would intrigue Oliver Sacks, even as she shocks the house by announcing that she has won over the men of Hinkley by giving blow jobs to all 600-plus of them.
In the star-kissed world of Erin Brockovich, if you do good, you can do very, very well. Erin goes home with a $2 million bonus, enough to buy lots of bodice-hugging outfits. All this is the stuff of fairy tales--and the reason audiences are cheering for Erin Brockovich, working-class sex bomb and dragon-slayer, heroine of a genuine feel-good movie. ¤