To Be Real

Being Erin Brockovich: Julia Roberts gets inside her latest part

Never mind that world-famous smile: Surprise--sprinkled with a dash of familiarity--has been the key to Julia Roberts's brilliant career. Working both sides of Hollywood Boulevard in the movie that made her a star ten years ago, Roberts turned Pretty Woman into the doubly sweet Cinderella story of a streetwalker (!) whose unexpected charm earns her the glass slippers--just as the actor became something infinitely more valuable than Eric Roberts's little sister. After a number of disappointing followups (I Love Trouble, indeed), My Best Friend's Wedding forced the falling star to fight for the hand of her newly engaged "best friend"--and renewed the vows of her art. Then, with last year's metatextual double whammy of Notting Hill and Runaway Bride, Roberts became the shrewdest superstar actor since Joan Crawford. Knowing that a performer of her stature can never really appear as anything but "herself" onscreen, she played "Julia Roberts" more indelibly than the characters, proving that what we love about Hollywood romances is lusting after that untouchable star who finally becomes ours in the final scene--if only for a moment.

But where to go from there? If Runaway Bride went so far as to allegorize the icon's unwillingness to commit to Pretty Woman 2 (until the happy ending, that is), then how much closer could she possibly bring us to the "real" Julia? Would she play a Truth or Dare--acting as herself in a "documentary"? Would she cut an album of torch songs?

The choice was hers: Even the upscale stalker film Sleeping With the Enemy had provided ample evidence of Roberts's range. But judging from the newly converted skeptics who've reviewed her latest vehicle, the great surprise of Erin Brockovich is that the highest-paid female actor in movies has triumphed as a "real-life heroine" in a topical drama. (The critics' unspoken subtext: The pretty woman can act!) The film's true story aside (it's based on a case involving Pacific Gas and Electric), what's "real" about Erin Brockovich--and Erin Brockovich--is that here, finally, is a single, working mom who isn't vilified or brought to her "proper" senses by her Hollywood creators. (Witness the fate-spanked characters of Meryl Streep and Michelle Pfeiffer.) Indeed, as proof that there's a new brand of personality on view in this rags-to-riches movie--the tale of an unschooled former beauty queen whose investigation of a water-contamination cover-up leads to the largest direct-action settlement ever paid--the film's first scene has the star's character looking toward the camera and pleading for a job.

Small wonder the orchestrator of this radical departure is Steven Soderbergh, who has a thing for surprise as well. In fact, no American filmmaker of the last decade has shown a bolder talent for varying both genres (Kafka, King of the Hill) and production scales (Schizopolis, Out of Sight) while retaining his integrity as a classical craftsman with more than a few tricks up his sleeve. Erin Brockovich, a quirky crowd pleaser in which Roberts's brash office assistant stands up to a $28 billion corporation, is the chameleonic Soderbergh's Big Hollywood Movie--the one he could have made ten years ago, just after the industry's instant canonization of his prototypical indie sex, lies, and videotape. More than that, it's the rare studio film about working-class people who don't end up the butt of crude jokes. And it's a women's picture--that is, an archetypal melodrama about a woman's dilemma of choosing between the demands of career and family--that never once limits the heroine's intelligence or her agency. And it's political in other ways, too, being about the importance of acting up, no matter one's social standing. And the heroine is played by Julia Roberts, an actor with the clout to sell the masses on material that's downright subversive by current mainstream standards.

But let me not make Erin Brockovich sound like a tract, because--befitting the star's $20 million salary--it is a movie, too. (When the ad copy touts the title character as bringing "a huge company to its knees," it sure ain't referring to Universal.) "Real" or not, Roberts's Erin is a natural-born ham, appearing on the witness stand near the start of the film wearing a neck brace and a low-cut floral print, arguing that her recent vehicular assailant "slammed my fucking neck." Alas, neither the colorful dialogue nor the cleavage-flaunting getup help to secure Erin a settlement, although this resourceful mother of three does manage to finagle a job out of the deal, pressuring her workaday lawyer (a droll Albert Finney) into employing her at his unkempt L.A. firm. Here, poring through dusty files while the kids are with an equally enterprising suitor-cum-sitter (Aaron Eckhart), our heroine locates evidence of a utility company's defensive offer to pay the medical bills of ailing residents in a desert town located near a suspiciously imposing gas and electric plant.

Now the movie gets down to work. But Erin, even when she's putting in serious overtime, remains a flamboyant character--which helps explain why this real woman's offhanded repartee sounds as well-scripted as anything uttered by Bette or Joan or Barbara. "They're called boobs," Erin aggressively informs her boss when he asks what she might possibly use to gain entry to the utility's records room. Roberts is in nearly every scene of this 131-minute movie, and she has never appeared more appealingly vivacious, whether her character is plucking half-dead frogs from a shallow stream, conferring with a young cancer patient who doesn't look like she'll live to see the prom, or sparring with Eckhardt's horny hippie-biker. (A gentle soul, this man nonetheless can't fully accept Erin's decision to help her family by working away from home.) Such independence is a good match for Soderbergh, whose otherwise diverse body of work often contemplates the mixed blessing of his protagonists' isolation--think of James Spader's sensitive, cloistered voyeur in sex, lies, or Terence Stamp's ruthless avenger in The Limey (credit to Film Comment's Dave Kehr for this insight). In the same spirit, he seamlessly turns the megastar Roberts into another of his lone wolves, casting just a few aspersions on the relentlessness of Erin's desire to vindicate herself for having been cruelly underestimated.

And, come to think of it, isn't that also the story of Julia Roberts? Up to now, the actor's main reward has been commercial ratification of the highest order (her previous two films having earned a combined $250 million domestic gross), but here she's stepping into Norma Rae territory, giving a socially conscious star turn with Oscar-winning potential. Soderbergh, for his part, not only respects that ambition but roots for her success. Per the fairy-tale ending of Erin Brockovich's true story (and the conventions of the Roberts oeuvre), the star's latest character enjoys a huge payday near the end--but it's not the last scene of the movie.

Without giving much away, I'll mention that Soderbergh leaves Erin among the people, working her charms door to door--just as the filmmaker may prefer to spread his own word at the level of the homespun indie. Still, the question of where the star may go next isn't easily answered. After all, how much longer can she continue her trick of subtly surprising her audience in role after role? Or, to put it another way: How much longer can we continue to underestimate the savviest actor in Hollywood?


Erin Brockovich starts Friday at area theaters.

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