Monica Taylor – 4522884
Professor Gyllian Raby
TA: Katherine Gottli
February 16, 2013
Word Count: 1750
Analysis of a Situation Drama: Erin Brockovich
Universal Pictures and Jersey Films turned the true story of legal assistant Erin Brockovich into a movie in 2000. The discrepancies between the true story and the Hollywood version staring Julia Roberts allow for analysis of how and why the writers chose certain details to change. This paper will use John Vorhaus and Kenneth Burke’s vocabulary to follow the heroine’s journey through the drama as carefully constructed and written by the writers at Universal Pictures.
Who is the hero?
Erin Brockovich is a mother of three desperate for a job. After a string of bad luck incidents, Brockovich gets into a car accident and attempts to file a lawsuit against the other driver, and in the process lands a job at that law firm she goes to. It is this scene where Brockovich’s motivation is revealed to the audience and a pivotal shift in her life happens. Although this scene is at the beginning of the movie,
the audience is well aware through the description of never ending obstacles in her way, this moment seems to be her big break.
It is in these opening scenes that Erin’s character motivations are revealed. Relating these clearly to the audience is important according to Kenneth Burke as he defines motives as “acceptable justifications for present, future, or past programs of conducts, used tribally to influence and persuade others” (Burke 3). The success of Erin’s character is based strictly on her motives as she comes into the story with not much to offer her current situation. Her personal motive is to get a job, any job at this point to support her family. As she does a little research into working for the law firm she begins to demonstrate to the audience her categorical motive, which Burke defines as “economic or pragmatic social utility” which is to assist, the underdogs (the town of Hinkley) beat the giant corporation of PG&E in a classis David vs. Goliath show down (Burke 3). Finally she exposes (use of exposition) her generic motive, which is to prove that any woman, regardless of education, if they work hard can be as successful as any well-educated man.
What does the hero want?
Brockovich successfully browbeats Ed Masry, her layer, into giving her a job at the firm. It is here we learn of her obstacles, which make this story, and the adapted script so interesting as the obstacles reveal the dramaturgy used to understand the philosophical implications of a script’s motive. The story of Erin
Brockovich is an up and down struggle of status both internally and externally. Both are intricately linked to each other and her needs. Her inner need is to feel justified which she has not been able to do thus far in her life, as she has no education and limited work experience. Her outer need is to provide for her three children and maintain (and improve) her lifestyle. The way Brockovich presents herself physically, revealing clothing, big hair, make up and a ‘no bullshit’ attitude reveals to the audience the low level of self-esteem she has. The audience watches her status shift and subsequently her self esteem rise over the course of the movie through her clothing choices as she uses her physical assets less to accomplish goals and uses her mind. It is her cultural belief that she should be able to do this right out of the gate instead of having to get there with her body and prove her worth with her mind. It is these stand off moments between Brockovich and head Lawyer Ed Masry that are essential to the hero’s plot development, status shifts and motivation exploration as she routinely dramaturgically plays with Masry to get her way and to raise her status up. This is a change that the writers at Universal Pictures changed for the movie as the real life Erin Brockovich was hired by an assistant of Masry and did not have much contact with him during the start of her process of taking on PG&E. (the electric company she sues).
The Door Opens
Brockovich spends a week visiting the residents of Hinkley collecting back-stories and attempting to make connections between illnesses and the hexavalent chromium that PG&E leaked into their water. When she returns to the office, she finds that her stuff has been cleared from her desk. Furious, she proves her status by barging into Masry’s office and demanding an explanation. As a shock to Brockovich, Masry explains that in the ‘real world’ you can’t miss work for a week without telling anyone. Feeling inferior, Brockovich desperately pleads with Masry with her findings from Hinkley and the promise to be more respectful towards the work environment and rules. Brockovich comes to the internal realization that her charm and good looks (and breasts as mentioned in the script multiple times) may not always get her what she needs from a situation. Although subtle, this is an important shift in the hero’s journey. The turning point from the ‘old’ and ‘unsuccessful’ Brockovich to the raw, new, grown up hero that will inevitably save the day.
The Hero takes control
As Brockovich begins to take control of her destiny, she begins to notice the sacrifices she is making in her personal life. Her personal motive is taking a back seat in her journey of self-discovery as she is neglecting new boyfriend Jorg and her three kids in her process. Brockovich finds encouragement and reassurance in her second visit to Hinkley as multiple scenes of rising action show her connecting with the residents and uncovering important information for the file against PG&E. She
begins to displace her motherly instinct onto the effected people of Hinkley when she is away from her own children. Although PG&E may seem like the antagonist of the plot, we can argue that it is Brockovich’s ‘previous self’ that can sometimes be the antagonist as her past looms over her building success as a reminder that she may not be able to accomplish her goals. Jorg is seen as the bad guy by the middle of the movie as he consistently reminds Brockovich of her neglect of her family.
A Monkey wrench is thrown
Although frustrated that she cannot be home more often, Brockovich is feeling positive about herself and her goals with this lawsuit. She arrives to work one day to find that Masry has partnered with a lawyer, Kurt Potter, who has experience with toxic chemicals. Masry tells Brockovich that Potter has made clearance with PG&E to get the residents $250 000 to be divided amongst the residents for their suffering. Brockovich is furious and tells the two of them how little money that really is considering the extent of the cost of each health crisis happening in Hinkley. Brockovich quits her job as her outer need to help Hinkley has been hindered.
Things fall apart
Masry attempts to convince Brockovich to come back as he sees her as an asset to the lawsuit because she knows so much about each family in Hinkley (a
pivotal scene shown mid-plot as Brockovich demonstrates exceptional care and motivation for the families). As Brockovich returns they are reaching a moment of clarity when they realize their little law firm is going head to head with a giant corporation. This is the moment of maximum remove when Theresa (Kurt Potter’s assistant) goes to Hinkley to continue Brockovich’s attempt at convincing town residents to join the lawsuit against PG&E. The residents do not like Theresa’s cold attitude and refuse to comply with further action until Brockovich is back. This is a logical consequence to Brockovich being taken away from the residents of Hinkley who she has bonded with over the past few months. Brockovich foresaw this disaster because her keen sense of people skills knew they would not respond well to Theresa. This disaster, triggered by the monkey wrench action was unforeseen by Theresa and Ed Masry. At this point, Brockovich has been stripped of her status enhancing position at the firm that was affirming her personal persuasion to work so hard to fulfill both her external and internal needs and motivation.
Hero hits bottom
Just when things cannot look any worse for Brockovich, her boyfriend and caretaker of her kids decides to leave her. This strips away her safety net at home where her personal motivations lie. Brockovich is faced with a tremendous decision of values when she is forced to decide if she is going to give up and find a new job (spend more time at home) or push through and risk it all by trying yet again with the residents of Hinkley. There is a pivotal character change in a scene where
Brockovich is with her baby and re-evaluates why she began this journey in the first place. She realizes it is important to her to prove to her kids that you can do anything if you set your mind to it (which relates again to her generic motive of proving an un educated woman can do anything). After returning to work she realizes that in order for the lawsuit to pass, they need all 624 residents of Hinkley to sign consent. A feat that Masry and the legal team deem impossible in the time frame given by the judicial system. This detail was added to the script to create the high stakes needed for the hero to risk it all.
Hero Risks all
In true Erin Brockovich style, she goes to Hinkley again to work her inner truth of personable encounters and genuine spirit to get every single one of those signatures. Along the way she encounters a man who, impressed by her ‘go get them’ attitude, provides her with documented proof the PG&E knew about the contamination. It is clear to the audience Brockovich is working on genuine concern for the justification for these families and no longer just for her own personal motivation.
What does the hero get?
With the help of Brockovich, all 624 signatures plus the proof of contamination won the residents of Hinkley $333 million. Brockovich’s generic and categorical motives were satisfied with the help of the writers for the movie, as
many residents in real life were not happy with the results. Her personal motive was fulfilled as she received $2 million dollars and a permanent job where she could see her kids more often. The writers at Universal Pictures followed the classic character- driven journey structure to shape the story into a box office success.
Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: University California Press, 1945.
Erin Brockovich. Dir. Steven Soderbergh Perf. Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, and Aaron Eckhart. Universal Pictures, 2000. Film.