ERIN BROCKOVICH: A relaxed but powerful American star-vehicle (2000 in Film #11)

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This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of March 17th, Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich

Erin Brockovich was the first true success story of the year 2000. Not only was it heavily critically appreciated, with a celebrated and eventually Oscar-winning performance from Julia Roberts, it was also a remarkable commercial hit, netting a quarter of a billion dollars world wide and in the top 15 box office films, globally, of the entire year.

It was, in a very real sense, a trend-setter in that regard. This is Roberts at the very peak of her game as an A-list Hollywood icon, able to open a film on both her name and that of the character she portrays in this simple but effective David vs Goliath story, or as Albert Finney’s lawyer Ed Masry puts it “David vs Goliath’s entire family”, given extra weight and depth by its strong through-line of female empowerment. This isn’t just a gift of a role for an actor like Roberts, it’s also a charm of a character; a real-life, genuine modern heroine who fought the system and won, a tale director Steven Soderbergh and writer Jennifer Grant never embellish. It’s a remarkable story enough based on the facts.

For Erin Brockovich to make such a powerful dent in the global box office attests to multiple things at the turn of the century; the continued, key importance of star wattage to open a movie (Tom Hanks would pull a similar trick later in the year with Cast Away), a clear audience appetite for female-driven, progressive cinema, and indeed at this stage the desire for more than just rinse and repeat sequels. In the age just before the true birth of the franchise picture beyond certain cult sub-genres, Erin Brockovich is proof that true-life pictures with the right combination of talent in front of and behind the camera, strong word of mouth based on quality, and perhaps a reactive element against the emptier big-budget blockbuster could make bank. 

It undoubtedly paved the way for the mid-2000’s fusion of pop-culture blockbuster and auteur-driven drama as typified by Christopher Nolan and, indeed, Soderbergh himself. Erin Brockovich’s legacy is a strong one.

Soderbergh was himself in the midst of a successful career renaissance even before he would light up the box office with his commercially (if not always critically) successful Ocean’s trilogy across the remainder of the decade, and Erin Brockovich oddly feels like a move away, stylistically, from his most recent pictures. It was also a highly pleasurable creative experience:

Erin is probably the most pleasurable shoot I ever had. It was the kind of movie I hadn’t made before, and just sort of bearing witness to what [Julia Roberts] was doing every day was so much fun. For the first four weeks, we were all in this Holiday Inn in Barstow and I’d come back covered in dirt every day, just smiling.

After his breakout thriller at the end of the 1980’s, Sex, Lies and Videotape, Soderbergh had continued to prove himself a director who refused to pin himself down to one genre; avant garde biopic Kafka, meta comedy Schizopolis, a stab at film noir with The Underneath, all before hitting the cultural jackpot with Elmore Leonard adaptation Out of Sight, in which George Clooney & Jennifer Lopez sizzled on screen in one of the defining pictures of the 90’s. Defiantly hard to pigeonhole, Soderbergh simply refused to make the same film twice, and Erin Brockovich as a result is probably his most relaxed, sedate and character-driven film up to this point. The script and performances do the heavy lifting while Soderbergh’s camera languishes in the pre-Breaking Bad, dappled Nevada desert sun and parched landscape, reflecting the key factor of poisoned water callously deployed by a heartless corporation our hero fights to expose.

It’s worth considering Julia Roberts’ career at this point, as she too was in the middle of a popular and successful creative period. A year earlier saw her reap critical and huge commercial acclaim as an emotionally stunted A-list Hollywood actress in Richard Curtis’ surprisingly delightful Notting Hill, which many wondered might be some kind of meta commentary on her stardom to date, and also in Runaway Bride – both romantic comedies which mined Roberts’ innate talent for all-American, slightly screwball charm and beauty. Roberts spent the 90’s balancing these kind of crowd-pleasing pictures with more serious fare for esteemed directors such as Alan J. Pakula, Stephen Frears, Neil Jordan etc… that would cement her status as more than just a marquee name. And while not her biggest box office hit, Erin Brockovich is arguably the project that fuses together her audience appeal with a straight-up tremendous performance.

With Soderbergh’s direction necessarily unobtrusive, it’s on Roberts to carry the picture home, even with able support primarily from legendary character actor Albert Finney (himself in the midst of a career renaissance of sorts), and she pulls it off. She imbues Erin with a likeable vivacity that pulls the audience in, even when she’s difficult and irascible. Erin is a single mother with the odds stacked against her, a woman who feels the system is rigged and no man—not even one as good natured as Aaron Eckhart’s kindly biker—is going to get her out of it. She is self-reliant, capable, defiant and brassy, even down to her refusal to modify her low cut tops and high heels for the more demure colleagues she works with. “As long as I have one ass instead of two I’ll wear what I like if that’s all right with you”. The more she fights the power, the more you root for her.

Make no mistake, too, this is very much a film centred around social injustice, with the added punch of ‘the little woman’ fighting back against a corporate, male dominated world. Erin is constantly challenging that sense of entitled patriarchy, whether trying to enforce upon her a dress code, or as in Peter Coyote’s hotshot lawyer swoop in and take away all the work she has undertaken exposing the crimes of energy conglomerate PG&E, and how much she has engendered herself with the victimised families who see her as a modern folk hero. “For the first time in my life, I got people respecting me. Please, don’t ask me to give it up”. The amount she has to beg and plead with the men surrounding her who try and steer her destiny is disheartening, but the way Erin fights back with dignity and strength, overcoming vulnerability to do it, is enormously rewarding to watch.

One of the reasons Soderbergh’s film works so well is that it’s not designed to be outwardly cathartic. Unlike a film such as The Hurricane, which hinged on a climactic point of justice, Erin Brockovich is less about bringing down a corporation and more about Erin proving she can survive against the odds and make something of herself amidst a rigged system in a man’s world. You could argue this is a feminist picture, an argument I will leave to people more qualified than I, but Soderbergh’s picture stands out at a point in cinema where you didn’t often see women in such strong, unashamedly feminine roles. There are points that Roberts gets to deliver a rebuke against corrupt power—particularly ones scene where she tears a few board members apart—but the air punching beat at the conclusion is not about the enemy but Erin’s own personal accomplishment, and a joyfully comic one at that. It is feel good without a sense of righteous anger, even when justice is done.

Erin Brockovich is film number one of a remarkable achievement for Soderbergh – getting nominated in the same year, 2001, as Best Director at the Academy Awards for two pictures. The other is Traffic, which I’ll talk about at the end of the year, and for which he won. Erin Brockovich might be his most restrained and oddly mainstream film outside of his venture into the glossy blockbuster; a star vehicle biopic in which one woman beats the odds and doesn’t just win, she finds purpose and respect. The fact it also did excellent box office, proving female-led dramas could make money, is the cherry on the cake.

One of the best films of 2000 and, arguably, one of the most important and influential on the decades to come.

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

4 – Eye of the Beholder

5 – Scream 3

6 – The Beach

7 – The Whole Nine Yards

8 – Wonder Boys

9 – The Next Best Thing

10 – Mission to Mars

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