THE CONTENDER: Erin Brockovich (2000)
Number of Nominations: 5 – Picture, Actress (Julia Roberts), Supporting Actor (Albert Finney), Director (Steven Soderbergh), Original Screenplay (Susannah Grant)
Number of Wins: 1 (Actress)
When the nominations for the 73rd Academy Awards were announced, it was by no means a sure thing that Steven Soderbergh would pull off his double-nod hat trick. Traffic was definitely on most voters’ radar. But his other 2000 release, Erin Brockovich, had come out back in March, almost an entire year earlier. Oscar voters have notoriously short memories.
Only one nomination was really a lock and that was Julia Roberts for Best Actress. Roberts had been nominated twice before and the fact that she would ultimately win this time is about as close as the Oscars get to a sure thing. Her competition included Juliette Binoche for Chocolat, Joan Allen for The Contender, Ellen Burstyn for Requiem For A Dream, and Laura Linney for You Can Count On Me. Great actresses and fine performances all but if you missed that category on Oscar night, you should have seriously considered retiring from the office Oscar pool.
But Erin Brockovich ultimately did just as well as Traffic in terms of nominations, each film scoring five nods. Interestingly enough, the two films competed against each other in several categories, including Best Picture, Best Director (which Soderbergh won for Traffic), and Best Supporting Actor (Albert Finney lost out to Traffic’s Benicio Del Toro). If Erin Brockovich had been based on a book, the two films would have competed in the screenplay category, too.
Today, Traffic is more often discussed and analyzed while Erin Brockovich is mainly remembered as the movie that finally won Julia Roberts an Oscar. That’s to be expected. Traffic is certainly the more complex, ambitious, and technically impressive of the two. But Erin Brockovich definitely has more going for it than merely the sight of America’s sweetheart swearing like a sailor and running around the desert in push-up bras.
What’s most striking about Erin Brockovich is that it’s a big Hollywood movie disguised as a gritty independent feature. Soderbergh was the ideal choice for such a project. He was capable of taking the best elements of each, making something more complex than your usual mainstream legal drama but also more crowd-pleasing than a typical indie.
What Soderbergh and writer Susannah Grant realized was that for the movie to work, it needed to tell two stories. As a biopic of the real Erin Brockovich, a single, out-of-work mom turned legal researcher, part of the overcoming adversity story needs to be about the landmark lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric. And while it would be easy to just tell the PG&E story, the audience won’t really care about it unless we care about Brockovich.
To accomplish this, Soderbergh necessarily relies on movie shortcuts, first and foremost of which is the casting of Julia Roberts. Roberts was (and is) a hugely successful movie star, beloved and idolized but accessible. Before the opening credits have finished, we’ve seen her fumble her way through a bad job interview, learned she’s twice divorced with three kids, and get in a car accident. Within five minutes, the audience is already on her side.
But what makes Roberts’ performance so interesting is that she doesn’t soften the character to play for sympathy. As Roberts plays her, Brockovich is a fairly abrasive personality. Sure, she’s usually right and she’s undeniably smart, quick-witted, and frequently charming. But she’s also tactless, short-tempered, and rude. The audience isn’t turned off by this behavior because Soderbergh surrounds Roberts with actors more than capable of holding their own against her.
Albert Finney is terrific as Erin’s boss, Ed Masry. It’s satisfying when Erin tells off the prissy, button-down, high-priced lawyer who underestimates her ability. But it’s equally satisfying in the very next scene when Ed tells Erin that she went too far. Aaron Eckhart could have had a thankless role as Erin’s biker neighbor turned babysitter turned boyfriend, George. But he delivers a subtle, complex performance. When he leaves, we get that Erin is finally getting a level of respect and satisfaction in her work that she’s never before experienced. But we also kind of wonder what took him so long to get fed up with her.
More than ten years after its release, it’s tempting to view Erin Brockovich as one of those movies that snuck into the Best Picture race purely on the strength of a powerhouse movie star performance…such as, oh I don’t know, The Blind Side maybe? But revisiting it, it holds up better than you might think.
Steven Soderbergh is (or, I suppose I should say, was*) one of the few filmmakers who could comfortably move between the mainstream Hollywood and low-budget independent worlds. Given the subject matter and setting, some might consider classifying this with his indie work. But make no mistake. Erin Brockovich is a big, glossy Hollywood studio picture. It just happens to be an extremely smart and accomplished one. Those are rare but they do exist.
Erin Brockovich is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.
*2017 Update: Nope, it’s “is” again.