I’ve written previously on CPBS about trying to pin down the parameters of fatness. My approach to selecting films and characters to write about is to see fat (and, implicitly, average/thin) as a contextual label that tacitly includes socially ascribed values, un/acceptability almost always being one of them. This open definition has room for a range of body sizes and shapes, and thereby, a range of challenges. Most characters, by virtue of being in widely distributed films, tend to be “Hollywood fat.” The conflict attached to their size of their bodies is the inability to be accepted into systems that are usually criticized for being shallow and elitist. Often the impact of their fatness on their character arc stays on that level. Muriel Heslop may be ostracized by her peers for being fat, but she is able to walk into literally every bridal boutique in Sydney and try on dresses that they have in stock.
It goes without saying that being demeaned based on narrow standards of physical acceptability is a real, common, and painful phenomenon, but leaving the fat person’s experience in the realm of “The jerks don’t think they’re beautiful but then they have some transformative life experiences and learn that they really are” is a vast oversimplification. I believe that challenging viewers to empathize with people and situations they had prejudged or overlooked is one of the most powerful effects that cinema can have, and fat characters are usually in a relatively comfortable place for most viewers– which is why What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is an essential addition to this blog. Bonnie Grape (Darlene Cates), aka Momma, is a fat woman whose weight and size impede her mobility; the impact this has on her children is a significant part of the plot. She isn’t treated as a joke or a horror story.
Although the previous sentence isn’t something that can often be said of people of Darlene Cates’ size when they appear on a screen, make no mistake: the film doesn’t idealize or center Momma. As with many marginalized and supporting characters, Momma functions as a symbol. Similar to Misery’s Annie Wilkes, Momma can be equated with domestic stagnation. She was “the prettiest girl around these parts” (the evidence of which is a photo of a younger, slender Momma on the family fridge) until her husband’s suicide. Her weight is attributed to her prolonged bereavement, ensuring that she is “wedged” in the house that he built for his family. “We don’t really move. I mean we’d like to, but my mom is sort of attached to the house,” Gilbert (Johnny Depp) explains to manic pixie dream girl Becky (Juliette Lewis) with a wry half-smile, referring both to Momma’s limited mobility and her emotional constraints on leaving the house. He continues describing his mother to Becky in terms that refer to both her size and her inability to move forward with her life: “Did you ever see a beached whale on television? …that’s her. That’s my mom.” Hardly a compassionate description. Compare her to Arnie (Leonardo diCaprio). Gilbert is also responsible for his brother’s well-being, but highly mobile Arnie isn’t a barrier to Gilbert’s wanderlust, and is able to travel off into the sunset alongside him.
Momma’s stagnation also seems to affect her younger son in particular. She cradles Arnie when he’s upset and refers to him with pet names like “my sunshine.” Her infantilizing treatment of him contrasts with his impending 18th birthday, as well as the stress that Arnie’s siblings go through trying to rein in his childlike antics (such as climbing the town’s water tower), occasionally exploding in frustrated violence. The film takes place roughly over the course of a week, during which time Arnie’s nose is bloodied both by his brother and younger sister.
The house itself, symbolic of the Grape family and their baggage, is not in good condition. Gilbert’s handyman friend Tucker (John C. Reilly) observes that it has “a serious foundation problem.” The house’s disrepair is attributed to the strain of bearing Momma’s weight; the few times we see her moving through the house are accompanied by the creaking and groaning of the floorboards under her feet; in one scene, her journey from the bathroom to the couch where she spends most of her time is intercut with shots of Tucker in the basement, observing the floorboards bending and showering dust from the impact of her footsteps. As with other tensions that remain undiscussed, her children keep the house repairs a secret from her, sneaking boards into the basement to secure the floor that shakes under her feet. The image recalls the cartoonish cliche of a fat person’s footsteps causing the ground to shake.
Momma’s inability/unwillingness to leave the house and reliance on her children to care for her tethers Gilbert to the house, stifling his dreams, which in practice comes across as his constant brooding. The town is depicted as sapping Gilbert’s will to live. Arnie’s comments lack a filter but usually skewer a situation’s truth. “You’re getting smaller!” he crows at his brother during the film’s opening scene. “You’re shrinking! Shrinking! Shrinking!” But any dreams Gilbert has beyond getting out of his hometown are nebulous and largely unspoken, which Becky attributes to him always thinking about other people. Despite being a caretaker for both his mother and brother, his selflessness has definite limits. He has an affair with a married woman (Mary Steenburgen), makes insulting comments about his mother to Tucker and Becky, and gets angry and sullen with Becky when she talks about leaving town, even though she is literally travelling through in a camper. If anyone in the family deserves to be characterized as always thinking of others, it’s older sister Amy (Laura Harrington), who is constantly in service of others onscreen, cooking for the family or helping her mother ambulate. Amy’s happy ending is relegated to Gilbert’s narration, where he tells the audience that she gets a job managing a bakery in Des Moines, and that younger sister Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt) is looking forward to “switching schools,” presumably under her sister’s care.
Momma also functions as a source of shame for Gilbert. Their relationship is understandably complicated. She holds him responsible for Arnie’s safety and he often fails her; she can’t move past her husband’s death, which results in additional burdens on Gilbert and his siblings. However, his frustrations with her are ciphered as disgust at her size. Gilbert’s desires, which Becky categorizes as selfless, include wanting Momma “to take aerobics classes,” prioritizing her unacceptable weight over her grief or her social isolation. When Tucker asks Gilbert how Momma is doing, he replies “She’s fat.” His friend defends her by saying, “She’s not the biggest I’ve ever seen.”
Inextricable from Gilbert’s sense of shame is how Momma is treated as a spectacle, an experience not unfamiliar to many people of Momma’s size. Momma was Darlene Cates’ first acting job; she was discovered by screenwriter Peter Hedges as a guest on Sally Jesse Raphael, talking about life at her size. During the interview, she said, “I’ve always had this fantasy, this goal, of being able to go to the mall… and sit there, and not have anyone notice me.” Fat characters, especially those who are Momma’s size, are often included in films as spectacle. Whether for eliciting laughter or disgust (often both), they often solely exist for the purpose of the emotional reaction of the audience looking at their bodies. Many of the townspeople making Momma into a spectacle are children, suggesting that the impulse to stare at her is immature. In the beginning of the film, Gilbert is willing to help a neighborhood child peek into the living room window to get a glimpse of her, but doesn’t want to bring Becky home, as is an expected step in their blossoming romance. He wants to stay outside the house, making snide comments to his friends and being safe in the crowd of spectators; being seen inside the house, as part of the family unit containing his unacceptably fat mother, is too much for him.
Although Gilbert eventually brings Becky into the house, Momma herself shows more courage than he does. After climbing the town water tower one too many times, the cops put Arnie in jail. Momma responds by leaving the house for the first time in over seven years to get her son. She tells her children to get her coat for her, but ends up going into town with a blanket thrown around her shoulders, a coat able to accommodate her likely being a difficult item to find. She marches into the sheriff’s office, to the surprise of everyone present, and demands Arnie’s release without having to go through any procedures that the sheriff tries to insist are necessary. Momma’ trip back to the car, assisted by Amy, is a gamut of children laughing at her and adults giving disgusted sidelong glances. One man even snaps a photograph. This scene is centrally composed of closeups of Momma and Amy, isolating them in the frame and focusing on their determination to get to the car in a dignified manner. The gawkers are seen in longer shots; we see them in groups, how they outnumber the Grapes, their feelings of disgust nearly overwhelming. The family is uncharacteristically quiet on the drive back home; during dinner, Ellen breaks a pane of glass throwing something at a group of children trying to sneak a peek at Momma. Although the act of going to the town square is objectively small, it is the essence of one of the main reasons Momma doesn’t leave the house: she is made to feel shame for who she is by nearly every passerby. Her lack of hesitation to confront that in order to save Arnie from a scary situation makes the blanket around her shoulders look more like a hero’s cape than an ad hoc coat. In the next scene, Becky tells Gilbert that Momma’s actions were “so brave… you know that, right?” He doesn’t respond, staring at the map of places to where Becky has traveled.
Arnie has his 18th birthday, typically a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, dependence to independence. Perhaps still feeling the shame placed on her by the town from her trip to the sheriff’s office, Momma watches the festivities from a discreet window. She and Gilbert have a heartfelt conversation in which she apologizes to him for being “this way” and he denies being ashamed of her. In a gesture to both atone for the shame he has felt around Momma and to bring Becky more fully into his life, Gilbert asks Momma to allow him to bring Becky inside and meet her. Momma, understandably, is initially resistant, but Gilbert persists: “This is different. Nobody’s gonna laugh. I’m not gonna hurt you any more, Momma.” She relents, and is introduced to Becky, who is young and pretty and slender, who embodies the person Momma was and the person Momma is compelled to measure herself against. Momma’s impulse, literally right after the two of them shake hands, is to apologize for herself: “I haven’t always been like this.” “I haven’t always been like this,” Becky responds, neutralizing the expectation of shame or regret around Momma’s body, normalizing their differences. Momma laughs, the tension in the room dissipates.
After the events of the day, Momma complies with a repeated request Amy makes of her in the beginning of the film and Gilbert’s unexpressed desire: she moves. Without fanfare, she ascends the stairs to a bedroom on the second floor. The scene appears to unfold in real time and focuses both on her children’s reactions and the effort it takes for her to get up the stairs. The soundtrack is largely her heavy breathing and the creaking of the staircase under her feet; her face shines with sweat once she reaches the second floor, and her children have to help her get into bed and rest. Finally at peace in her relationship with Gilbert, she calls him her “knight in shimmering armor… you shimmer and you glow.” Presumably because her body was not able to handle the strain, Momma dies while the family cleans up the remains of Arnie’s party. As is the case with many heroes, Momma sacrifices herself for the sake of her loved ones.
The family’s grief is compounded by a horrifying thought: the police may have to call in extra manpower to remove Momma’s body from the house. Ellen panics: “There’s gonna be a crowd.” “She’s no joke… I’m not going to let her be a joke,” Gilbert vows. Tragically, he finally returns to seeing his mother as someone worthy of dignity only after her personal agency has been eradicated. Instead of trying to ignore or accept the stares of the townspeople, or try to fight against them, the family makes a radical decision to liberate Momma from them altogether. The only way for Momma and her children to be freed from shame is to remove her body from the equation entirely, for her funeral to be the project of her family alone. They remove their belongings from the house and light it on fire, with Momma’s body inside. She is not the only one liberated by this act; freed of the dual constraints of Momma and the house their father built, Gilbert and Arnie are free to ride off into the sunset with Becky and the magical convoy of campers that roll through their town every summer.
Because the film focuses on Gilbert’s personal conflict and growth, Momma’s depiction is mostly limited to her experiences as a fat person, and how her size affects her relationships with her family and her community. Although this is a notable limitation, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is landmark for how it asks the audience to look at the story. While Momma’s relationship with her family is complicated, especially with Gilbert, we are invited to empathize with her, and see the cruelty and negative effects of the judgmental gaze that is so often turned onto people of Momma’s size. Considering that virtually all other pieces of media depicting people like Momma invite the audience to embody that judgmental gaze, the subverted viewpoint of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape makes it essential, despite its flaws.
No Small Parts episode #8: Darlene Cates A webseries dedicated to the lives and careers of character actors presents a heartfelt tribute to both Momma and Cates, who lives in Texas with her husband of 40+ years. As a self-identified fat actor himself, webseries creator Brandon Hardesty makes a poignant comparison between his own career and Cates’: “If I turned down every role where my weight is used as a one-off joke or a sight gag, I’d probably never work again.”