Magazine article The American Prospect

Women on the Verge

Magazine article The American Prospect

Women on the Verge

Article excerpt

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 naif, 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 babysitter, 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. …

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