The regulars are gathered around the bar at Our Place, drinking cold colas to slake the Mojave Desert's midday parch, when somebody finally brings up the subject on everyone's mind: Erin Brockovich. "I remember the night the real Erin Brockovich walked in here," recalls bartender Lynn Tindell. "She was strutting her stuff. She knew all the guys were looking at her." Brockovich, as anyone who has seen the movie knows, was the sexy single mom who helped the residents of Hinkley, Calif., win a record $333 million settlement against Pacific Gas & Electric for contaminating their well water with toxic chromium VI. Then, like a true Cinderella, she sold her story to Hollywood. Happy ending? Not quite. "Good movie," says Lynn Morris from one end of the bar, "but they're making millions, and we're still dying out here."
Last week the film passed the $100 million mark in box-office receipts, and people were speculating that Julia Roberts might win an Oscar for her uplifting role as the gutsy and busty Brockovich. But in Hinkley, plenty of people are angry over Erin, which they feel portrays the lawyers as white knights and the townspeople as a bunch of hicks. Residents are angry because, while the movie makes it seem that justice was done, in fact only 600 of the town's 1,000 residents won a money award. They are also peeved because the movie's success has scared off potential home buyers and made it difficult for residents to get health insurance. Another sore point: most of the movie was filmed in nearby Boron, not Hinkley.
Such are the dangers of taking real life to the screen. Controversies over fact-based movies like The Hurricane, Boys Don't Cry and The Insider have got big ink in the past year, but Erin Brockovich's problems slid by almost unnoticed. Residents who received settlements back in 1996 were sworn to secrecy as part of the agreement, but now their sick neighbors are piping up. "I didn't want to go see the movie, but I did. Give me a break! What s___! They depicted the lawyers as so concerned about the residents," says Diane Zuniga, whose mother got $40,000 in the lawsuit but whose father, brother and sister got nothing, despite what Zuniga says were equally serious health problems. "Does [Brockovich] really care? I don't know. I just know I want enough money to get this crap out of my body."
Brockovich and her boss, Ed Masry (played by Albert Finney in the movie), are preparing to go to trial again in November against PG&E on behalf of 140 more Hinkley residents and a group of victims in nearby Kettleman City. So many are seeking to be part of a third lawsuit--800 in all--that Masry is turning people away. Hinkley resident Susan Cordova, who claims the hysterectomy she had at 28 was necessitated by the chromium contamination but has twice been turned down by Masry, says lawyers in Los Angeles (one of whom was portrayed by Peter Coyote in the movie) told her that she should be "ashamed" for complaining since her health problems weren't life-threatening. (The lawyers deny having said this.) Masry and Brockovich didn't take Thelma Hunter's case either, though she has cancer of the right kidney and a shoulder eaten away by disease. Or Tom Owens', with his cancerous tumors. "Most of us got screwed," says Lynn Morris. "We didn't know about the original lawsuit. Only a little clique knew."