Gilbert Grape at 20: When Johnny met Leo...
One of the downsides of living in a movie landmark with a half-mile long driveway is that obsessed fans who can’t get a satisfactory peek from the road will occasionally think nothing about rolling up to your front door. Jim Lutz and Alex Carrillo have lived in their 100-year old farmhouse in Manor, Texas, since 1977, raising five children, running a jewelry business, and occasionally lending their rustic home to a movie or television production. But the tourists who come knocking aren’t imposing on their hospitality because of Roadie, the 1980 movie starring Art Carney and Meat Loaf that filmed there. And they aren’t snapping pictures because they loved the season of The Simple Life where Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie swept through. Rather, they’ve driven long distances — some come all the way from Europe — because of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, the 1993 movie that starred Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio.
In hindsight, perhaps one can understand the allure. Twenty years later, Depp and DiCaprio are huge Hollywood stars — one is Capt. Jack Sparrow and the other was the King of the World in Titanic. But Gilbert Grape barely made a ripple in theaters when it opened in December 1993, grossing only $10 million. Despite positive reviews and a prescient Oscar nomination for DiCaprio’s supporting turn as Gilbert’s mentally challenged brother Arnie, the movie was marginalized as “quirky” and endured a failed platform release and uninspired marketing campaign. “It had a terrible log-line: ‘Life is a terrible thing to sleep through,’” laments Grape’s director Lasse Hallström. “Who wants to go see a movie about someone who is sleeping through life?”
But rather than slip into obscurity, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? has grown over time into a beloved gem, not only for its celebrity leading men, but for its enormous heart — best represented by Darlene Cates, the amateur actress who played the boys’ overweight shut-in mother who never recovered from her husband’s suicide. “Gilbert Grape had its revenge as a DVD and a VHS,” says Hallström. “People found it later on and there was a period when you started picking up on the fact that people had seen it over and over again.” Like the one pilgrim to Manor from Tombstone, Ariz., who saw the movie 40 times, felt compelled to visit the Grape house, and ended up hanging around the Lutz farm for a couple of days. “It’s been a real special movie for a lot of people,” says Lutz.
One person who instantly fell in love with Gilbert Grape was Johnny Depp, who read Peter Hedges‘ 1991 novel, thought it was a modern Catcher in the Rye, and committed to work with Hallström on it before there was even a script. He connected with Gilbert, a small-town grocery clerk suffocating under the demands of caring for his mother and brother — with the help of two sisters — in the sleepy town of Endora, Iowa, where a new Burger Barn qualifies as news. “Describing Endora is like dancing to no music,” Gilbert says in the film’s opening voiceover. “It’s a town where nothing much ever happens, and nothing much ever will.” But something does happen, obviously, and Gilbert’s malaise is interrupted when a beautiful girl (Juliette Lewis) is temporarily stranded in town after her grandmother’s silver Airstream trailer breaks down.
For Depp, who was beginning to build his oeuvre of odd after starring in Edward Scissorhands and Benny & Joon, Gilbert was a more grounded character, one who resonated personally because of the actor’s own small-town upbringing in Miramar, Fla. “I know that feeling of wanting to get out,” Depp told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1994. “Where I grew up in Miramar, there’s the school, a watertower, a grocery store, a drugstore, and a pizza joint. A big day was when the pizza joint started selling sub sandwiches.
But while Depp and Hallström adored Hedges’ novel, certain issues needed to be addressed. In the novel, Becky, the girl that 24-year-old Gilbert falls for, is only 15. “That gets into some trickier, dicier things, and it became evident that that wasn’t going to play,” says Hedges. “And the novel is all from Gilbert’s point of view, full of sarcasm, with a lot of bite. Lasse has a very acute sense of not wanting to make fun of the characters in his stories, so I knew Momma was not going to feel the [harsh] way she did in the book.”
Hedges and Hallström spent weeks working on the script in Stockholm, ultimately boring it down to an outline, with the ending sort of left up in the air. (Hedges would continue to write and re-write the screenplay all through production.) In the meantime, casting continued, with special attention paid to the two physically-challenged characters, Momma and Arnie. Hedges was worried that Momma would be downsized for the movie, that a moderately plump name actress might be cast, so when he saw Darlene Cates on the Sally Jesse Raphael show being profiled as an overweight agoraphobe, he immediately brought her to Hallström’s attention. Cates weighed around 500 pounds and had not left her house in five years before flying to New York for the emotional televised interview. “When Lasse saw the tape of Darlene, he started to cry, because she had the heart and the spirit of what the mother should feel like,” says Hedges. “She was almost a little girl trapped in this body. There was a sweetness to her.”
“No one could’ve been more surprised than I was because I was just a fat housewife in Forney, Texas, of all places,” says Cates, who subsequently auditioned at her home for Hallström and producers. “I was sort of skeptical, but when I started reading, Lasse threw his hands in the air and said, ‘Finally! Somebody that can act!'”
For Arnie, the filmmakers contemplated going the same route as Momma, casting a real person with modest disabilities, but they never went so far as to audition any amateurs. Lukas Haas had made a strong impression on the filmmakers, but then DiCaprio simply blew everyone away. At the time, the 17-year-old was best known for his season on Growing Pains, but insiders knew that he had just finished This Boy’s Life with Robert De Niro. DiCaprio had intensely prepared for his audition, studying a video of kids with special needs that the casting director had prepared, and when he read the scenes — one, where he annoys Gilbert by saying he’s “not going anywhere,” and two, where he’s in the truck telling Becky about his birthday party — it became clear he was something special. “You could see him switch on the character,” says Hallström. “His gaze kind of got lost and he turned into this kid. He was amazing to watch, so there was no question that he was the right boy for it.”
Well, Hallström did have one minor reservation: DiCaprio was too good-looking. Plus, the kid had other options, notably a high-paying offer for the Bette Midler movie Hocus Pocus. “I knew it was awful, but it was just like, ‘Okay, they’re offering me more and more money. Isn’t that what you do?'” DiCaprio told Movieline in 1995. “But something inside of me kept saying, ‘Don’t do this movie.’ And everyone around me was saying, ‘Leonardo, how could you not take a movie?’ And I said to myself, ‘Okay, I’ll audition for this movie Gilbert Grape. If I don’t get that, I’ll do Hocus Pocus. I found myself trying so hard, investing so much time and energy in Gilbert Grape, I worked so damn hard at it and I finally got it.”
At the time, everyone in Hollywood wanted to work with Hallström, so even as studio after studio passed on financing the project, top talent flocked to it. “I remember seeing My Life as a Dog and thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I’ll never get to work with that guy, but wow, I wish I could,'” says Mary Steenburgen, who played Gilbert’s manipulative lover, the unhappy mother and wife of a life insurance salesman (Kevin Tighe). “Plus, I absolutely loved the book. Just the way that Peter writes is so beautiful to me. It’s like music. It’s never right on the nose.”
Juliette Lewis, who was white-hot after working with Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, breathed life into the more age-appropriate version of Becky the movie required. “She had just done Cape Fear and she’s so unusual,” says Hedges. “A lot of what I was then trying to do was to put things out there that would organically land with her. She was very excited to improvise, and there were instances where she would take a line and just tweak it enough to make it her own, like that beautiful line she does with Darlene, ‘Well… I haven’t always looked like this.’ She adjusted it in a way that really made it sing.”
Laura Harrington and 13-year-old Mary Kate Schellhardt came aboard to play the two Grape sisters — maternal Amy and antagonistic Ellen — and the casting directors fought hard for John C. Reilly and Crispin Glover as Gilbert’s two buddies. “The producers thought that John was too old for the role and Crispin Glover was just sort of [Laughs] … you know, you didn’t know what he was going to do,” says Hal Masonberg, who was a casting production assistant. “But we felt both individually and together they were so good that [we] really fought to convince the powers to be that they were the ones. Then we got a call saying Crispin had shown up and he’d shaved his head.”
Though the story is set in Iowa, production took place in and around Manor, a small town about 12 miles northeast of Austin that hadn’t yet been redeveloped and instead looked very much as it had back in the 1930s. Cast and crew arrived in town right around Halloween 1992. Cates was understandably nervous — “Terrified is the correct word to use” — and things didn’t get better when she sat down for the first time with Depp. “We met in the arboretum part of the hotel [to read some lines],” says Cates. “We just sat and talked to each other [at first] and of course I asked how his girlfriend was. I didn’t know he’d just broken up with her. Open mouth, insert foot.”
Depp had been engaged to Winona Ryder for three years, and he famously had “Winona Forever” tattooed on his arm. Ryder was the one who first read Hedges’ novel and brought it to Depp’s attention. He would later describe his Gilbert Grape experience as a period full of “emotional turmoil” that, combined with the intensity of playing a character so close to his true self and his frustration with the nebulous screenplay, made for some dark days. “It wasn’t so much the girlfriend, I think,” says Hallström. “It was more that he could relate to the troubled family life and the desire to get out of a small-town situation.”
Perhaps. But it was more than just some Method-y character channeling. “I think Johnny was frustrated by the fact that we hadn’t figured out how to end the film,” admits the director. “We had a big fight in the middle of the shoot over how the script was all free-flowing and floating and we kept shooting on an outline. I was walking past Johnny’s trailer one day, and a mobile phone came flying out the window. It wasn’t always rosy and happy times.”
“There was this huge creative tension between them,” says Harrington. “Johnny had a very specific idea, which is his genius, to play these Edward Scissorhands-like characters that had this quirky aspect. Lasse wanted him to play it straight; he said, ‘No, no, I want this to be real.’ And both of them are very caring people, so it was interesting that they’re having that struggle, because [fighting] didn’t fit either personality.”
Depp has acknowledged the dark cloud that consumed him during Gilbert Grape, laying the bulk of the blame on the character (and not his romantic life). “That mixed-up family and him being responsible, those issues clung to me. Making that movie was a bad time. I was as deep in the soup as I could be,” he told Playboy in 1996. “I was soused, drinking heavily, really doing myself in. When it gets constant, when you’re going to sleep drunk, waking up and starting to drink again, that stuff will try to kill you. … At one point I was living on coffee and cigarettes, no food, no sleep.”
But Depp’s demons didn’t seem to inflict any collateral damage. In fact, his co-stars marveled at his professionalism, his sweet and gentle demeanor, and his random acts of kindness. He never left the Grape house set without making sure Cates had everything she needed and sending her home with a kiss on the cheek. After scenes in which Gilbert was cruel to his mother, he would call Cates at her hotel at night to apologize for having to say the words. “I thought it was so funny,” says Cates. “Here he is the professional; he’s done all this stuff before. But I thought, ‘What a tribute to his kindness that he would take the time to consider that I might be hurt by what he said.'”
“I wasn’t aware of whatever personal struggles he was going through, I honestly wasn’t,” says Lewis. “All I thought was that he was pensive or thoughtful, or working something out in his head. I always thought it related to his acting style. Whatever he was going through in his personal life and as Gilbert, it worked beautifully for the role.”
But Depp wasn’t a complete downer to be around. On the contrary, he was the ringleader, popping up at group gatherings and organizing other, more exclusive outings. “I remember one night this friend of his who may or may not have had vaguely criminal connections teaching us both how to pick locks,” says Steenburgen. “I’ve used [the skill] many times since then, getting trapped children out of bathrooms and things like that.”
“I think we had a night of bar-hopping to bond, you know as actors do,” says Lewis, before catching herself. “I mean — Oh, maybe we didn’t bar-hop! Me and Leo were underage. You know what I’m saying.”
As for the tabloid rumor that the on-screen couple hooked-up romantically on the set, Lewis, who was then dating Brad Pitt, says it ain’t so. “I guess we were both part of the ’90s zeitgeist at that time, so going into that film, I knew there would be a rumor from day one that we were involved,” she says. “So I will answer the urban legend: we never were involved with each other. Just FYI. Would be fine if we were, but we weren’t.”
DiCaprio turned 18 on the set of the movie, and his relationship with Depp, who is 12 years older, was predictably little brother/big brother. “Johnny was very amused by trying to make Leo gag from sniffing awful smelling things — it was a running gag of gagging!” says Hallström. “And Leo volunteered to smell the most awful things, because I think he was amused by being able to crack Johnny up. I remember strange old pieces of food.”
“There was this big jar of pickled eggs, sitting up on the window sill — God only knows how long they’d been there,” says Cates. “They were not to be eaten, and Johnny dared Leo to eat one [for money]. I was sitting there, of course, the mother, telling him, ‘Don’t do it, Leo. Don’t do it. That’s your dignity you’re selling.’ And of course he just disobeyed and went ahead did it anyway. Leo took a bite — and almost died. Not literally, but oh my gosh, he gagged.”
DiCaprio was, in every way except talent, just a kid — a fun, enthusiastic teen with no filter who loved Howard Stern and playing video games. When he turned 18, legally becoming an adult, he asserted his independence and sent his mother home, but that didn’t change much. “He clearly loved his mother so if he had any kind of rebellion, it wasn’t dark,” says Harrington. “He wanted her to leave just because he wanted the experience I think of being 18. But since I was playing his older sister, I started getting calls like, ‘Hey, come watch me play a video game.’ ‘Want to watch a movie?’ I just immediately took over that part.”
No one needed to hold his hand, though. “You could tell that this guy had a future,” says Hallström. “In anything he undertook, he was good at. He was better than me at billiards. He was better than me at finding his way back when we got lost in cars. He had this instinct for finding the right way back home. He was just smart. Already as a 17-year-old, he was smarter than most of us.”
After DiCaprio had landed the role of Arnie but before filming began, he spent some time with a group of mentally-challenged boys near Austin. Just as he had done with the pre-audition tape, he proved to be a brilliant mimic, incorporating some of their tics and mannerisms — the glazed eyes, the finger flicking, the nose wipe — into a completely unique creation. “It was really Lasse believing in me and allowing me to run amok in all these scenes,” DiCaprio told Esquire in 2010. “It was incredibly fulfilling because there were no rules. Zero. There was nothing I wasn’t able to do, no circumstance that I couldn’t create, even if it was in defiance of the narrative.”
During filming, DiCaprio would occasionally stay in-character in between shots, sometimes jumping on the trampoline with Lutz’s 7-year-old son. “People in the area would come and watch us shoot and they were astounded that a developmentally disabled kid could remember all those lines,” says Steenburgen, with a laugh.
“One time I went to his trailer and we were playing video games, and they came to get him for a scene, and I didn’t look at him but I felt him change,” says Schellhardt. “So he kind of walked out of the trailer as his character. It was so amazing to me. I felt in awe of that, of watching that, because I’d never seen anyone do that. Then I realized, looking around on set, that everyone was sort of in that same place of wonder at his ability.”
The scene that everyone remembers is when Arnie discovers his mother’s dead body, as the mentally-challenged boy goes through a complicated cycle of emotions, from amusement to anger to fear. He did it three times, and each time, he mesmerized the crew. “I remember watching the dailies on that and it was a three- or four-minute take,” says Hedges. “It was a pity we couldn’t just use the whole take, just let it run, because it was perfect.”
If DiCaprio was the shooting star, Cates was the film’s nurturing celestial center. “All I can say is she is almost addictive,” says Harrington. “She is so funny and you really fall in love with her, really quickly. It was just kind of a magic spell she could cast. And she got what being an actor was about right away, though I think for Darlene the film was completely different than for the rest of us, because it was the story of her life.”
Cates knew and understood Momma’s story inside and out, and her own emotions were never far from the surface. “That conversation where Momma is sitting there talking to Gilbert at the foot of the bed and she says, ‘You know I never wanted to be a burden,’ says Cates. “Well, guess what? I’d had that same conversation with my own son at the foot of my bed.”
Cates may have been initially discovered because of her size, but she turned out to be a natural actress. Even as she struggled with the role’s physical demands — like climbing stairs — she delivered one powerful, touching, and truthful moment after another. When Arnie is jailed for climbing the watertower, Momma herself gets up and leaves the house to fetch him from the courthouse. The scene had to evoke intense feelings and memories for Cates, as Momma pushed her shame aside to protect her family. Brady Coleman played the sheriff who had the misfortune of putting Arnie behind bars, and his character’s startled reaction to Momma’s presence didn’t take much digging. “She was just powerful as hell,” he says. “I mean, we were all sitting in there, the deputy and me and when she came in and started screaming, ‘I want my boy!’ I mean, it was more than film.”
The film’s ending still remained uncertain. In the novel, after Momma dies in her bed, the Grapes burn down their house with her in it rather than endure the circus that would erupt when a crane would be summoned to remove her body. “There were certainly executives and heads of studios that said, ‘You can’t burn down the house. The audience is going to throw rocks at the screen,'” says Hedges. “But all that meant was we had to work harder in the setting it up and earning it so that when it did happen, you went, ‘Well of course, that’s what they’d do. They have no choice.'”
Not far from the Lutz house was a similar-looking house that had been blown off its foundation by a twister and abandoned in an open field. It would serve as Momma’s funeral pyre. “It was a very nervous day, the burning of the house,” says Harrington. “We were standing a long distance from the house and the heat coming off it was scorching. It was really dramatic, just physically to get through. It was a really powerful day. Really emotional. But it was so beautiful to look at.”
The film wrapped and everyone went their separate ways. DiCaprio went off to make the Sam Raimi western The Quick and the Dead. Depp reunited with Tim Burton for Ed Wood. Lewis signed on for Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Hallström teamed up with Julia Roberts for Something to Talk About. Hedges went back to writing novels and screenplays; his world-class film apprenticeship on Gilbert Grape would ultimately point him towards directing his own films, including Pieces of April and Dan in Real Life.
Paramount set What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? to open on Dec. 17, 1993 in six theaters, with plans to expand. It was prime Oscar-hopeful real estate, and the movie opened well enough, averaging more than $12,400 per screen. But it had the misfortune of opening the same week as Schindler’s List and a week ahead of Philadelphia. Two months later, Gilbert Grape was playing in only seven theaters and on the verge of disappearing altogether. But on Feb. 9, Leonardo DiCaprio awoke to learn that he had been nominated by the Academy for Best Supporting Actor. “For those who’d seen the film, I don’t think [the nomination] was much of a surprise, though there was no campaign whatsoever as I recall for it,” says Hallström. “I remember hearing the applause [during the announcement] from those who had seen it; it was so much stronger than for any other nominee.”
Two weeks before the Oscars, Paramount finally expanded Gilbert Grape to 611 theaters, where it placed 13th for the weekend. “The movie had been out for four months at that point,” says Hedges. “That movie was really close to disappearing completely from the consciousness of anybody. So we were all very frustrated because we thought like there was an audience for the movie and that maybe they were missing it.”
DiCaprio lost the Oscar to Tommy Lee Jones, who won for his role in The Fugitive. You can debate the merits of all five nominees two decades later, but at 19 years old, it simply wasn’t DiCaprio’s time. (Though apparently it was 11-year-old Anna Paquin’s.) Even then, DiCaprio seemed to have a firm grasp of the business, telling the Miami Herald before the ceremony, “As far as winning is concerned, I’ve heard you shouldn’t win now anyways, because if you win now, your career will be over. You’ll never work again because the heat will be so big, you’ll crash and burn. But if you just get the nomination, it’ll stay. People will want more.”
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? was DiCaprio’s coming-out party, and just as his performance has taken on historical significance because of everything that came later for him, Depp’s Gilbert also has special meaning. Depp has made a career of hiding behind his eccentric characters, from Jack Sparrow to Willy Wonka to Sweeney Todd, but Gilbert Grape was Depp without a net. “Leonardo’s performance is obviously such an astonishing performance for any actor, but especially for a 17-, 18-year-old kid, but I think Johnny’s performance is in many respects the harder performance and not the one that you’re going to necessarily immediately recognize as being so exquisite,” says Hedges. “But it is. And it’s how those two are when they’re together to me which is the heart of the film.”
Darlene Cates returned to Forney, Texas, after Gilbert Grape, did a few TV episodes, and recently starred in a short film that’s awaiting release titled Mother. She had several health scares in recent years related to her weight, but she’s feeling better since returning home from a series of lengthy hospital stays in 2011-2012 and is hoping to voice a character in an animated film this year. She is extremely proud of her family, as well as her “boys,” Johnny and Leo, and she’s happy to share her motherly thoughts on the actresses they’re dating (or engaged to). Her own two grandsons, 21 and 15, in turn, are especially proud of her work in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? — in part because that’s not the worst calling-card for a teen trying to impress a girl. “I’ve noticed on [the youngest’s] Facebook that a time or two, he’s said, ‘You know, my grandmother was in a movie with Johnny Depp,'” she says. “You’d be amazed at how many times I’ve talked to girls on the telephone, making brownie points for my grandson! All these girls say, ‘Oh, you had Leo hanging on you!’ For me, he was just this dirty little boy that kept hanging on me, trying to stay in character. I mean, they had that kid dirtied up good. I could just hardly stand it. Trust me girls, it was no big deal.”