What’s Eating Gilbert Grape has all the characteristics of an Oscar-winning ’90s film: loss, laughter and some stunning performances. What’s more, the coming-of-age tale set in the American Midwest proved both a breakthrough for Johnny Depp in the role of Gilbert and Leonardo DiCaprio as his mischievous, autistic younger brother.
But aside from on-screen details that we’re almost certain you missed, there are even more behind-the-scenes secrets to be discovered. So read on for some fascinating facts about one of the great movies of its era…
20. Darlene Cates was discovered on a talk show
One of the big surprises of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was the heartfelt performance of amateur actress Darlene Cates. Yet given her expertise at portraying Bonnie, Gilbert and Arnie’s loving yet morbidly overweight mother, it may come as a surprise to learn that Cates had never acted before. In fact, one of the casting directors originally discovered her on Sally Jessy Raphael, talking about her lifelong obesity struggle.
19. In the book, Arnie only has one eye…
Leonardo DiCaprio’s turn as Arnie is the epitome of sweetness: in Peter Hedges’ original novel, though, his depiction is less attractive. Specifically, he only has one eye due to injury. Furthermore, Gilbert, as the book’s narrator, describes him as “having teeth that look confused,” with “no hiding that he’s retarded.” Bit harsh…
18. … and Gilbert is far meaner
In fact, the novel’s depiction of all the movie characters was much grittier and maybe more realistic. For one, Gilbert says of Arnie, “Some days you want him to live, some days you don’t.” He also has a lot less patience for his brother than the film shows. Meanwhile, Gilbert’s relationship with Becky, played in the movie adaption by Juliette Lewis, is also based more around sex than romance.
17. It was Darlene Cates’ first and only major movie
Although Darlene Cates’ acting in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was a revelation, unfortunately her star turn didn’t lead to bigger and better things. To date, moreover, it remains the only major movie she has starred in. After shedding an incredible 240 pounds in 2012, however, she’s hoping to be on screen again very soon.
16. There are giveaways that the movie was filmed in Texas
Despite being set in the fictional town of Endora, Iowa, the movie was actually filmed in Manor, Texas. And this is accidentally given away a couple of times: firstly, by the reflection of a white and blue Manor police vehicle near the start of the film, then later by the Texas-based Mrs Baird bread loaves when Gilbert is spying Becky between shelves.
15. Gilbert’s dad died 17 years ago, but his sister’s only 15
In one of the more glaring script goofs, Gilbert says early on that his father passed 17 years back. Sad story, but the problem is that Ellen, his sister, is only 15. Maybe Gilbert, in his apathy, got his numbers mixed up. Or maybe Ellen actually did have a different father but, seeing as this is never mentioned, we’re going to go with script error.
14. Darlene Cates never really climbed the stairs
When Bonnie climbs the stairs to her bedroom by herself, it’s a big moment, showing her determination. Alas, her glorious ascent was a cinematic illusion: in reality, Cates only climbed a couple of steps, which was recorded from different angles then looped. Also, the set for her “upstairs” bedroom was, in fact, on ground level.
13. Bonnie’s breathing when she’s supposed to be dead
Cates’ bravura performance shouldn’t be discredited, but one aspect of her acting that could’ve used a little bit more work was playing dead. When Arnie first discovers her lifeless on the bed, for example, you can see her eye jerk when he shakes her. And later, at her vigil, you can tell she’s breathing as her chest moves up and down. Oops.
12. Gilbert’s hair keeps changing color
We’ll never forget Johnny Depp’s handsome appearance in the movie, with his intense look that speaks a thousand words and his flowing dark brown hair… or was it red, or light brown? If you forgot that particular detail, that could be because Depp’s locks change color and length several times in the movie, with no explanation.
11. Depp paid DiCaprio $500 to sniff a rotten egg
It’s somewhat fair to say that Arnie and Gilbert Grape’s bittersweet relationship carried through into Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio’s real-life dynamic. For example, as a dare Depp once paid DiCaprio $500 to get a good whiff of a moldy pickled egg. And as Depp once said he “tortured” DiCaprio off screen, maybe this is what he was on about? That said, $500 for just a few seconds of inhaling rancid egg fumes seems like a pretty good deal to us!
10. DiCaprio wasn’t meant to kill the grasshopper
Early in the movie, Arnie sticks a grasshopper on the opened edge of a mailbox then slams it shut, ripping the head off the poor creature. Naturally, DiCaprio killed the grasshopper as a result – but he wasn’t meant to. And this all apparently led to run-ins with animal rights organizations. Oh dear.
9. People believed DiCaprio was really disabled
It’s hard to believe, but Leonardo DiCaprio wasn’t always famous. In fact, not many people knew of him until his performance in Gilbert Grape. Once he shot to fame, though, a lot of Hollywood folk were surprised to find out that he didn’t actually have a developmental disability in real life.
8. DiCaprio turned down Hocus Pocus for his role
In surely the biggest decision of his early acting career, Leonardo DiCaprio turned down the role of Max Dennison in Disney’s classic Halloween movie Hocus Pocus. In 2014 he even told Variety that the role would’ve earned him “more money than [he] ever dreamed of,” but that he’s nevertheless still proud of “being a young man who was sticking to [his] guns.” No offense to Hocus Pocus, but probably a wise choice by the young DiCaprio.
7. The photo of a young Momma is actually a snap of Darlene Cates
At one point in the movie we see a photo of Bonnie in her better days, looking fresh, happy and within a safe weight range. And, interestingly, this is actually a genuine snap of a young Cates before her eating issues – which she attributes to her parents’ divorce – took hold. Amazing.
6. DiCaprio didn’t wash while Arnie was afraid of water
After Gilbert accidentally leaves him in the bath all night, Arnie picks up a fear of water until much later in the movie. And in a rather method move, DiCaprio himself didn’t wash throughout while filming this period of Arnie’s phobia. Well, they say smell is the strongest of the senses, so maybe stinking is actually a great way to get immersed in the role?
5. Darlene Cates was a recluse before the movie was made
Because of her self-perpetuating loop of obesity and reclusiveness, Bonnie Grape never leaves the house. Likewise, before making the film, Cates hadn’t stepped out of her house for over five years. Scared of being seen in public, it gave her yet another thing in common with the character she portrayed.
4. Depp felt bad about insulting Bonnie in the movie
Gilbert’s relationship with his mother isn’t always sunshine and rainbows. Indeed, he says a couple of pretty harsh things to Bonnie during the movie. Still, Depp has since revealed that he felt so guilty about delivering those lines to Cates that he’d regularly say sorry to her afterwards. Indeed, he once told her, “I want you to know how much I hated having to say those things about you, or about your character.”
3. DiCaprio invented Arnie’s nose flick
One of Arnie’s many distinctive behaviors was to give his nose a little flick every now and then. But this endearing tic wasn’t the concoction of the screenwriters; in fact, it was actually invented by DiCaprio himself. In a 1993 interview with The New York Times, moreover, the actor described it as “like a brain wipe, like Arnie is massaging the inside of his brain.” Smart acting.
2. To prepare, DiCaprio spent time with disabled kids
In order to get as close as possible to the mindset of a neurodivergent boy, DiCaprio spent several days at a home for developmentally disabled teenagers, watching the residents’ behaviors and chatting with them. And after being enlightened by the experience, he said, “People have these expectations that… [these] children are really crazy, but that isn’t so. It’s refreshing to see them because everything’s so new to them.”
1. Lukas Haas nearly played Arnie
It’s hard to imagine anyone in the role of Arnie other than Leo. Until he auditioned, though, it was actually Lukas Haas who’d made the strongest impression on the casting team. Interestingly, DiCaprio had already pipped Haas to the role of Toby in This Boy’s Life, and Haas went on to have secondary roles in DiCaprio-led movies Inception and The Revenant. Despite the competition, though, the pair remain good friends.