Roberts won the Academy Award, BAFTA, Golden Globe Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, and various critics awards for Best Actress. The film itself was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Director for Steven Soderbergh at the 73rd Academy Awards. He won that year, but for directing the film Traffic. Early in the film the real Erin Brockovich has a cameo appearance as a waitress named Julia.
In 1993, Erin Brockovich is an unemployed single mother of three children, who has recently been injured in a traffic accident with a doctor and is suing him. Her lawyer, Ed Masry, expects to win, but Erin's explosive courtroom behavior under cross-examination loses her the case, and Ed will not return her phone calls afterwards. One day, he arrives at work to find her in the office, apparently working. She says that he told her things would work out and they did not, and that she needed a job. Ed takes pity on Erin, and she gets a paid job at the office.
Erin is given files for a real estate case where the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) is offering to purchase the home of Donna Jensen, a resident of Hinkley, California. Erin is surprised to see medical records in the file and visits Donna, who explains that she had simply kept all her PG&E correspondence together. Donna appreciates PG&E's help: she has had several tumors and her husband has Hodgkin's lymphoma, but PG&E has always supplied a doctor at their own expense. Erin asks why they would do that, and Donna replies, "because of the chromium". Erin begins digging into the case and finds evidence that the groundwater in Hinkley is seriously contaminated with carcinogenic hexavalent chromium, but PG&E has been telling Hinkley residents that they use a safer form of chromium. After several days away from the office doing this research, she is fired by Ed until he realizes that she was working all the time, and sees what she has found out.
Rehired, she continues her research, and over time, visits many Hinkley residents and wins their trust. She finds many cases of tumors and other medical problems in Hinkley. Everyone has been treated by PG&E's doctors and thinks the cluster of cases is just a coincidence, unrelated to the "safe" chromium. The Jensens' claim for compensation grows into a major class action lawsuit, but the direct evidence only relates to PG&E's Hinkley plant, not to the senior management.
Knowing that PG&E could slow any settlement for years through delays and appeals, Ed takes the opportunity to arrange for disposition by binding arbitration, but a large majority of the plaintiffs must agree to this. Erin returns to Hinkley and persuades all 634 plaintiffs to go along. While she is there, a man named Charles Embry approaches her to say that he and his cousin were PG&E employees, but his cousin recently died from the poison. The man says he was tasked with destroying documents at PG&E, but, "as it turns out," he "wasn't a very good employee".
Embry gives Erin the documents, which include a 1966 memo proving corporate headquarters knew the water was contaminated with hexavalent chromium, did nothing about it, and advised the Hinkley operation to keep this secret. The judge orders PG&E to pay a settlement amount of $333 million to be distributed among the plaintiffs.
In the aftermath, Ed hands Erin her bonus payment for the case but warns her he has changed the amount. She explodes into a complaint that she deserves more respect, but is astonished to find that he has increased it—to $2 million.Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich
Albert Finney as Edward L. Masry
Aaron Eckhart as George
Marg Helgenberger as Donna Jensen
Tracey Walter as Charles Embry
Peter Coyote as Kurt Potter
Cherry Jones as Pamela Duncan
Scarlett Pomers as Shanna Jensen
Conchata Ferrell as Brenda
Edward L. Masry as Diner Patron
Michael Harney as Pete Jensen
Veanne Cox as Theresa Dallavale
Scotty Leavenworth as Matthew Brown
Gemmenne de la Peña as Katie Brown
Gina Gallego as Ms. Sanchez
T. J. Thyne as David Foil
Valente Rodriguez as Donald
The film was shot during eleven weeks with five weeks taking place in Ventura, California.
Erin Brockovich performed well with test audiences but executives at Universal Studios were worried that audiences would be turned off by the title character's use of profane language.
Erin Brockovich was released on March 17, 2000, in 2,848 theaters and grossed $28.1 million on its opening weekend. It went on to make $126.6 million in North America and $130.7 million in the rest of the world for a worldwide total of $257.3 million.
The majority of critics responded favorably towards the film, with Roberts' performance receiving rave reviews. It holds a certified "Fresh" rating of 84% on film review website Rotten Tomatoes and 73 metascore on Metacritic. In his review for The New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, "We get the best of independent cinema and the best of mainstream cinema all in one package. Erin Brockovich, like Wonder Boys right before it, makes the year 2000 seem increasingly promising for movies". Newsweek magazine's David Ansen began his review with, "Julia Roberts is flat-out terrific in Erin Brockovich." Furthermore, he wrote, "Roberts has wasted her effervescence on many paltry projects, but she hits the jackpot this time. Erin, single mother of three, a former Miss Wichita who improbably rallies a community to take on a multi-billion-dollar corporation, is the richest role of her career, simultaneously showing off her comic, dramatic and romantic chops". Rolling Stone magazine's Peter Travers wrote, "Roberts shows the emotional toll on Erin as she tries to stay responsible to her children and to a job that has provided her with a first taste of self-esteem". In his review for Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman gave the film a "B+" rating and wrote, "It's a delight to watch Roberts, with her flirtatious sparkle and undertow of melancholy, ricochet off Finney's wonderfully jaded, dry-as-beef-jerky performance as the beleaguered career attorney who knows too much about the loopholes of his profession to have much faith left in it". Sight & Sound magazine's Andrew O'Hehir wrote, "Perhaps the best thing about this relaxed and supremely engaging film (for my money the best work either the director or his star has ever done) is that even its near-fairytale resolution doesn't offer a magical transformation". In her review for The Village Voice, Amy Taubin wrote, "What's pretty original about the picture is that it focuses an investigative drama based on a true story around a comic performance".
However, film critic Roger Ebert gave the film a two-star review, writing, "There is obviously a story here, but Erin Brockovich doesn't make it compelling. The film lacks focus and energy, the character development is facile and thin". In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, "After proving, for about 40 minutes, what a marvelous actress she can be, Ms. Roberts spends the next 90 content to be a movie star. As the movie drags on, her performance swells to bursting with moral vanity and phony populism". Time magazine's Richard Corliss found the film to be "slick, grating and false. We bet it makes a bundle".
The film was released on VHS and DVD on August 15, 2000.
Erin Brockovich received numerous awards. The Broadcast Film Critics Association, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and National Board of Review voted Julia Roberts Best Actress of the year. The National Society of Film Critics voted Steven Soderbergh Best Director for his work on both Traffic and Erin Brockovich.
Erin Brockovich received four Golden Globe Award nominations, including Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director (Soderbergh), Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama (Roberts), and Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture (Albert Finney). Julia Roberts went on to win the only award for the film for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama. The film received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (Soderbergh), Best Actress (Roberts), Best Supporting Actor (Finney), and Best Original Screenplay (Susannah Grant). Roberts won Best Actress, the only Academy Award the film received. However, Soderbergh lost out to himself for his work on the film Traffic.
For her portrayal, Roberts became the first actress to win an Academy Award, BAFTA, Golden Globe Award, National Board of Review, Screen Actors Guild Award, and various critics awards for a single performance.
American Film Institute recognition:AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
"They're called boobs, Ed." — Nominated
AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains:
Erin Brockovich — No. 31
AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – No. 73
On her website, Brockovich says the film is "probably 98% accurate". While the general facts of the story are accurate, there are some minor discrepancies between actual events and the movie, as well as a number of controversial and disputed issues more fundamental to the case. In the film, Erin Brockovich appears to deliberately use her cleavage to seduce the water board attendant to allow her to access the documents. Brockovich has acknowledged that her cleavage may have had an influence, but denies consciously trying to influence individuals in this way. In the film, Ed Masry represents Erin Brockovich in the car crash case. In reality, it was his law partner, Jim Vititoe. Brockovich had never been Miss Wichita; she had been Miss Pacific Coast. According to Brockovich, this detail was deliberately changed by Soderbergh as he thought it was "cute" to have her be beauty queen of the region from which she came. The "not so good employee" that met Brockovich in the bar was Chuck Ebersohl. He told Erin about the documents that he and Lillian Melendez had been tasked by PG&E to destroy.
The scientific accuracy of the film has been questioned. According to The New York Times, scientists have suggested that their profession would have more rationally and scientifically evaluated the medical evidence that inspired Brockovich. One scientist who spoke to the paper urged audiences to ask themselves if the science supports the film's assertions.