12 Biggest Changes Julia Roberts’ Erin Brockovich Makes To The True Story

Summary

  • Erin Brockovich’s lawyer, Ed Masry, did not actually represent her. His partner, Jim Vititoe, handled her car accident case instead.
  • Erin Brockovich herself suffered from chromium poisoning during her investigation, but this was not included in the final cut of the film to avoid making her a martyr.
  • The character Donna Jensen is a composite of several real Hinkley victims involved in the case, and the payout received by the victims varied greatly, with many receiving small sums and the majority going to the law firm of Masry & Vititoe.


Erin Brockovich is a powerful story about a lawyer’s investigation into the major cover-up of a local community’s contaminated water supply, earning its star Julia Roberts an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role, but the film makes several hangs to the true story of Erin Brockovich and her pursuit of justice. After landing a job at the same law firm handling her car accident case Brockovich, a divorced single mother, discovered medical files hidden within real estate folders indicating extreme illness as a result of Hinkley’s drinking water contaminated by PG&E. Brockovich’s fight against the utility company made national headlines in the late ’90s.

At the time Roberts took on the role of the tenacious paralegal, the case was still actively a part of the zeitgeist, and thanks to streaming and memorable Erin Brockovich quotes, new fans are discovering Brockovich’s intrepid work three decades later. While dramatic biographies like Erin Brockovich tell a riveting David and Goliath story, and the film primarily sticks to the case, there are some things that Erin Brockovich gets wrong about the facts. Creative liberties make for a more melodramatic thriller that tugs at the heartstrings, but the ending wasn’t quite as happy as it would have viewers believe.


12 Ed Masry Never Represented Erin Brockovich

His Partner Jim Vititoe Handled Her Car Accident

Edward L. Masry {Albert Finney) is shown representing Erin Brockovich after she’s injured in a car accident and is struggling with unemployment. When they end up losing the case, Erin is shocked, and makes Masry hire her to work at his firm after trusting him to win her case. The real Masry makes a cameo in the film during the diner scene sitting over Roberts’ shoulder, but he never represented Erin Brockovich – that fell to his partner, Jim Vititoe, but it makes sense from a dramatic point to give the two characters a quick connection that demonstrates their respective combative and altruistic qualities for conflict later.

11 The Real Erin Brockovich Got Chromium Poisoning

It Made Her Closer To The Hinkley Victims

Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich

During her investigation of Hinkley’s water supply, Erin Brockovich herself got chromium poisoning, and a hospital scene with Julia Roberts was filmed to include that. However, speaking on the Erin Brockovich DVD commentary, director Steven Soderbergh decided against including the scene in the final cut of the film. He believed that it would make Erin into a martyr.

“It was going to “turn into one of those movies where the protagonist gets terminally ill.”

The director made the uncharacteristic choice to not play too heavily on the audience’s sympathy with a maudlin scene and instead focused on Brockovich’s work ethic.

10 Donna Jensen Doesn’t Exist

She’s Based On Several Real Hinkley Victims

Donna-Jensen-Erin-Brockovich

Donna Jensen (Marg Helgenberger) is part of the big case against PG&E, but no such person exists. Instead, she’s a composite of several people involved in the real case, most specifically Roberta Walker, who was the main inspiration and enjoyed a portion of the very large payout that the utility company was forced to pay in the settlement. Having a character who serves as an amalgamation allows for a lot more flexibility in the narrative of the story than a real person, and they can be used (or not used) in whatever way best serves the pacing or momentum of the drama unfolding.

9 Hinkley Victims Payout Didn’t Have A Happy Ending

Reimbursement Amounts Varied

Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich

While the victims of chromium poisoning did receive dispensation for their medical issues, Erin Brockovich’s ending is very much a product of Hollywood movie magic. Of the whopping $333 million, the highest settlement paid in the United States for a direct-action lawsuit, it was not distributed based on the medical issues of each family who was affected, and many who thought they would receive a substantial amount to cover their medical bills received paltry sums, and often their medical records weren’t consulted to determine it. There was no rhyme or reason to the payout, and half of it ($133.6 million) went to the law firm of Masry & Vititoe.

8 Hinkley Never Had Higher Cancer Rates

Higher Cancer Rates Make Erin Brockovich More Dramatic

Julia Roberts collecting samples in Erin Brockovich

The hexavalent chromium that became the focus of Erin’s investigations in Hinkley was thought to be a known carcinogen at the time. Studies that have come out since the time of the film’s release have shown that no one in the town suffered higher cancer rates than anywhere else in the area. According to the California Cancer Registry, the rates of cancer remained unremarkable from 1988 to 2008, which is when the case was pursued. While the victims of the water contamination suffered excruciatingly, it’s clear that some of the data was changed in the film to draw more attention to the heinous plight of Hinkley’s residents.

7 Erin Brockovich’s Massive Payout Was More Than $2 Million

She Made Another $500,000

Albert Finney and Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich

The scene where Ed presents Erin with her bonus check is one of the scenes’ great red herrings because it doesn’t include the dollar amount they discussed. She assumes it’s less than what they agreed by the way he refers to the sum, but in actuality, it’s more than either of them imagined – an incredible $2 million. In point of fact, the real Erin Brockovich’s windfall was even higher than that at $2.5 million, which highlighted her temerity, resourcefulness, and determined spirit as an underdog taking on a huge corporation that would normally have been able to outlast a small firm in court simply by throwing money at the problem.

6 Erin Brockovich Was Never Miss Wichita

She Won Beauty Pageants In Other States

Julia-Roberts-as-Erin-Brockovich

While the real Erin Brockovich was a beauty queen, she never won Miss Wichita despite Kansas being her home state. She did win Miss Pacific Coast in 1981, but later left the world of beauty pageants behind because of its elitist nature. In the DVD commentary for Erin Brockovich, Soderbergh explained that the change simply came down to wanting the character to have some pride in her home state, and seem more connected to Kansas because it was “cute.”

5 Erin Brockovich’s Ex-Boyfriend Was Her Nanny

He Also Sued Her After The Case

julia-roberts-aaron-eckhart-in-erin-brokovich-1

In the film, Aaron Eckhart plays Erin Brockovich’s boyfriend George, a character based on the real Erin Brockovich’s Hispanic biker boyfriend Jorge. Unlike in the film, after Erin and her boyfriend broke up, he was employed as her children’s nanny for years by the law firm so that she could spend more time focusing on her work. It’s possible that this scenario would have been overly complicated for the film to include, but it’s a fascinating example of two adults putting their mutual differences aside for a purpose larger than themselves (although Jorge did try to sue Brockovich after she got her $2.5 million).

4 Erin Brockovich Didn’t Use Her Body

But She Did Have A Provocative Sense Of Style

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The real Erin Brockovich wore revealing outfits in the office and to court out of a sense of self-expression. However, unlike in certain scenarios in the film, she didn’t use her body to manipulate or influence people around her in quite the same way that Roberts did to get the information and data she needed to build her case. Roberts’ portrayal not only captures the essence of the real paralegal in her body language and outfits, but in her plucky attitude – part of the reason the real Erin Brockovich was so successful is that she didn’t care what anyone thought of her, she only cared about getting to the truth.

3 The Water From Hinkley Was Served To Lawyers In A Courtroom

Erin Brockovich Made A Spectacle Of PG&E

Julia Roberts and Ed Masry in Erin Brockovich

In one of Erin Brockovich’s best scenes, Erin and Ed sit across from the defense attorneys representing PG&E and negotiate a larger settlement for their Hinkley clients. After Erin recites an exhaustive laundry list of the ailments of the victims, she demands the lawyers consider the most moral sum, and after the negotiations end, she informs them that the water they’ve been drinking was from Hinkley wells. While this scene was impressive on its own, the real scene took place in a courtroom with many more spectators to make Erin’s coup de grĂ¢ce even more of a show-stopper.

2 The Real Erin Brockovich Is Dyslexic

She Overcame It By Memorization

Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich

The real Erin Brockovich is dyslexic, making the memorization of legal jargon difficult. She might not have worked as fast as some of the other paralegals, and was often taken to task for being slow, but it can’t be argued that she wasn’t any less methodical. More of an emphasis could have been put on this in the film as a means of representing those with dyslexia using it as a means to become better in their chosen field, rather than it working to their detriment.

1 Erin Brockovich’s Photographic Memory

It Was Enhanced For The Film

When Erin is accused of not being thorough enough in her research as evidenced by a few missing phone numbers, she’s able to promptly rattle off not only the numbers, but the names, addresses, medical history, and family members of each of her clients. It’s an impressive scene in Erin Brockovich that helps establish her character, but it’s debatable whether such a scene happened with the same cinematic flair. However, it was a chance to showcase Brockovich’s incredible memory, and give Roberts her best scathing retort since she put the saleswomen at the Rodeo Drive boutique in their place in Pretty Woman.

Source: California Cancer Registry