I watched What's Eating Gilbert Grape again last night for the first time since it came out in 1993. There are spoilers here, don't read any more if that kind of thing bothers you, or go and read a synopsis if you're unfamiliar with it. Anyway, it's a film that gets name-checked because of its cast, made up of people who have gone on to conquer Hollywood, but it's extraordinary to me because of its depiction of a superfat woman in a dramatic role. This is something that never happens, and today I can imagine that same role might easily be cast to a thin actor wearing a fatsuit, for whatever stupid fatphobe war on obesity reason.
I'll get the bits I'm not so keen on out of the way first. Yes, Bonnie Grape is a downbeat character, she's dependent, a sad couch potato, tragic, and has to die, though I'm glad to see that actor Darlene Cates is still going strong at 61. The film is a right old schmaltz-fest, and the incidental music is really annoying. I won't go into the representational stuff about Leonardo DiCaprio's portrayal of a learning disabled person, but that's there too.
But here's what I like: Bonnie is complicated, she can be fierce, she is loving and loved, and just as flawed as any of the other characters. I like the depiction of people's reactions to Bonnie and how they affect her, not just the cruel stares, but also her family's love. I love the authenticity that Cates brings to the role. I think it's amazing that she's neither depicted as virtuous or villainous, and I love the way that her heft and bulk is shown, that seems very real and quite daring to me. The director, Lasse Hallström, picks up on her screen children's shame (and guilt about their shame) about their mother really sensitively. He's not suggesting that all families where there is a fat person experience this, it's localised to the family in the film, and well-observed, I think.
Most of all, I like to think about the Hollywood pretty people in the film, that they act together with Cates. It's appalling to think that they all went on to have amazing acting careers, and hers was more modest in comparison. Yet in this film, here they are, all together, in each others' worlds as equals. A really fat woman is shown as having space and presence in the world, she's not absent or abstract, and she's played by a real fatty. It's a great mix-up, though also a reminder of how little similar representation there is of characters like Bonnie Grape.