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Digesting Gilbert Grape
An interview with novelist-screenwriter Peter Hedges
By Gloria Cahill

Reprinted from the Spring 1995 issue of Radiance

I had made up my mind that I would wait until it came out on video. I wasn't going to pay seven bucks to see some sideshow glimpse of "what-it-really-means-to-be-fat-and-misunderstood." And I sure as hell wasn't going to be part of the entertainment.

I had heard good things about What's Eating Gilbert Grape, but I had also received some rather pointed cautionary instructions from well-meaning friends. "Go on a Wednesday afternoon in Queens when the theater is empty." "You'll love the movie, but the audience might drive you a little crazy." "Sit in the back of the theater." None of it very inviting. Much of it painfully astute.

Then on a Friday night in February, Alice Ansfield, editor in chief of Radiance, asked me if I would be interested in interviewing Peter Hedges, the author of both the novel and screenplay Gilbert Grape, and Darlene Cates, the actress who portrays Gilbert's mother in the film. Never one to pass up an opportunity to listen to artists talk about their work, I forgot all the warnings, checked the newspaper listings, and jumped into a cab in time for the next showing.

It didn't take me long to become thoroughly immersed in the film. I found myself laughing at all the right moments and even forgiving the people around me who laughed at the wrong ones. Size acceptance is a learning process, I reminded myself, and this is only one of the textbooks.

When the credits rolled, I made my way to the bathroom and remembered what Alice had told me a few hours before. "They start off laughing at Momma," she said. "But by the end, they understand, and they're not laughing anymore." And then as I moved past the long line of red-eyed women who were waiting for toilets, I heard the tall blonde in skin-tight black jeans and high heels whisper loudly to her friend, "There goes Momma."

Rage and humiliation swept through me like a power surge. Every hesitation that had kept me from the theater raced through my mind. Not because I had been compared to the extraordinary woman who had only recently emerged from five years of self-imposed isolation to perform an unforgettable role in an important film. Not because I had been compared to Bonnie Grape, the larger-than-life matriarch who held her family together despite unspeakable losses and disappointments. I was enraged because it was obvious that the whole point of the film was forgotten or disregarded in favor of a cheap laugh.

I stopped walking and stared at her back. She wouldn't turn to face me. Snipers never do. So I stared into the eyes of her giggling accomplice and said, in a dignified voice, "You're very funny." And I walked out. Not the most dazzling comeback, but inherent in the voice, and the posture, and the steady gaze was a refusal to participate in my own denigration.

In the months that have passed since that night, I have revised the script in my mind many times. (I've always excelled at rewrites.) In the revisions, the would-be assailant turns and faces me and I say, "What a lovely compliment. Thank you." And I walk away. Or sometimes I say, "No, dear, you're mistaken, but we do have the same beautiful blue eyes." Or, my favorite, "If you think that's an insult, then perhaps you need to see this film again." And I walk away.

It's the walking away part that never changes. Always with my back erect and my shoulders straight, I walk. And always, I know that I have been heard.

As I waited for Peter Hedges to arrive at the SoHo cafe where we would meet for the first time to discuss the novel and the film, I still hadn't decided if I would tell him this story. I didn't. I didn't need to. I knew it was a story he'd heard before. He must have. Otherwise, Bonnie Grape would never have been born.

Peter Hedges has an extraordinary talent for forcing an audience to look at characters they would typically define as grotesque and getting them to recognize their inherent humanity, dignity, and beauty. In his 1990 play Imagining Brad, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse is married to Brad, a "freak" who is legally blind, has no hair "except for a clump on the side of his head," and is without legs or hands. His wife (we never learn her name) tells her friend Dana that Brad's "skin is flaky and crusty, and his ears, while he can hear perfectly, his ears look like cauliflower." But, says the young wife, "in no time what was at first ugly became soooo beautiful to me - and he must have felt this." She goes on to explain, "Nothing is quite as loving . . . as Brad."

Dana, a victim of escalating domestic violence at the hands of her husband ("the best-looking man in Tennessee"), is baffled by her friend's story, until she too falls under the spell of Brad's love and tenderness. "I thought he'd be grotesque," she says, when she is allowed a brief glimpse of Brad, "but he's beautiful. His flaky, crusty skin. It's like Christmas cookies. And the way he breathes those short little breaths, . . . (silence) Oh, God, I feel better."

Imagining Brad received a wide assortment of powerful responses, ranging from outrage to gratitude. In the author's note that accompanies the Dramatists Play Service edition of the play, Hedges recalls, "One young man threw a chair at me after a staged reading. A certain critic wanted to burn the theater down. Others have been touched. One middle-aged woman with tears in her eyes said, I was abused when I was a little girl. I've never been able to laugh about it. Thank you for letting me.'" The author's note continues with observations that could apply to Gilbert Grape as well:

This play is delicate. If you perform it with compassion for these women, with no negative judgment, then you will have let them live and let the audience care. If these women are portrayed as different from you or me, if they are commented on or made into caricatures, then the audience is given permission to dismiss the play and the questions it asks.

In these few sentences, Hedges sums up what appears to be the overall philosophy of his writing.

In What's Eating Gilbert Grape, a twenty-four-year-old man tries to balance his personal identity with the challenges inherent in being part of a family beset with problems. His mother, Bonnie, is supersize and housebound, a widow whose husband committed suicide when she was pregnant with their sixth child. Arnie, the youngest son, is mentally challenged and approaching his eighteenth birthday, a milestone that doctors never expected him to reach. Gilbert, who serves as Arnie's chief caretaker and best friend, is trying to sift through the myriad obligations, resentments, and frustrations that characterize his family life. Chief among those frustrations is Gilbert's relationship with his mother. To complicate matters even further, the whole family lives in a house that is beginning to collapse under the weight of Bonnie, who seldom leaves her chair, situated directly above the basement beam from which her husband hung himself.

A priority for Hedges was his desire to honor Bonnie's dignity. This is partly accomplished by the lack of dignity Bonnie is afforded at the beginning of the film. Hedges explains that this works "because of where we end up. If we didn't end up there, I would have been troubled."

Where the film ends up is with Gilbert's acceptance of, and perhaps even reverence for, his mother. "A lot of the journey in terms of Gilbert's relationship with the mother is about where he ends up. By the end, he has a full range of feelings about her, but added to his collection of feelings is some respect - a lot of respect, and love and appreciation."

When asked what he would most like readers and viewers to take from What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Hedges answers, "I would hope that people might view their fellow beings, all beings, with more empathy, more compassion, with a desire to understand. Even if they can't know why people are the way they are, to understand that they're probably that way for a good reason. The second thing would have to do with the fact that we live in a time when so much is telling us how our life is supposed to be and who we are supposed to be; how our life should look, and how we should look. And I suppose that what I am trying to say is that no life is small and no story without its value."

When Hedges started writing the screenplay of Gilbert Grape, one of his chief concerns was how to cast the role of Bonnie. "I was worried that they were going to cast someone who was not heavy enough to play the mother," says Hedges, who first saw Darlene Cates when she appeared on a segment of the Sally Jessy Raphael Show entitled "Too Heavy to Leave Their House." "I took the tape to Sweden, because I wanted the director to have a sense of what I had imagined," he says.

The director was Lasse Halstrm, whose other films include My Life as a Dog and Once Around. "When he saw Cates on the tape, he started to cry because he said that she was a grown woman, and yet, there was a quality about her that was almost like a little girl. That really appealed to him," says Hedges.

What Halstrm saw as Cates's childlike vulnerability accounts for much of the contrast between the Bonnie of the novel and the Bonnie of the film, who is far more sympathetic than her literary counterpart. In the novel, Bonnie, who is seen through the lens of Gilbert's frustration, is a far more rage-driven character. In writing the film, says Hedges, "I tried to create a mother who would embody the mother in the book and also have the humanity that Halstrm wanted her to have from the beginning. He didn't want the audience to be pushed away from her."

Casting the role of Bonnie meant launching a national search for a woman who could fit the physical requirements of the character. This necessity eliminated the standard pool of Hollywood leading ladies. It also meant possibly casting someone who was not a professional actress. Hedges had to keep that in mind while writing the role. "In some of the early drafts of the movie, she was just a presence," he recalls. "But when we realized that Darlene could act so well, I added more material for her."

Cates did not arrive on the set until two weeks into the filming. "I don't think we really understood what the movie was about until she got on the set," says Hedges. "I spent a lot of time with her because I was locked in my room rewriting much of the time, and she was a few floors up in her hotel room with her son. I'd often go up and see her or we'd talk on the phone a lot. And it was a very emotional part of the process."

"Many of my rewrites would have Gilbert saying very cruel things about the mother. The thing Darlene was most afraid of was that she was going to be a joke, that they were going to make a joke out of her. And that's where I think she really kept us honest. There were many instances when I had to explain to her that Gilbert had to say these things. He had to hold people up to the window; he had to speak inappropriately about her. Ultimately, the important thing was where Gilbert ended up. It is a more powerful movie because he starts out where he starts out."

Although there are striking differences between Hedge's two versions of Bonnie, one common denominator is the insight with which Hedges depicts the rage and isolation that often go hand in hand with compulsive overeating. Bonnie's eating grows out of her profound rage at the God whom she blames for her husband's suicide. This is the same God with whom she negotiates for the chance to see her mentally challenged son, Arnie, reach the age of eighteen.

Hedges's portrayal of Bonnie is rich in complexity, never surrendering to the all-too-familiar stereotype of the sideshow fat lady. Although on one hand Bonnie exerts almost total control over the lives of her grown children, she is also totally dependent upon them. She consumes their lives as voraciously as she consumes countless bags of potato chips and boxes of Cheerios. And yet this same character, who is at times shown as grotesque, also embodies the divine. This duality is captured in the novel with a rare moment of tenderness between mother and son in which she says to Gilbert, "One day you might understand what it means to create. To know the feeling of looking in a person's eyes and know that you are the reason for those eyes. . . . I'm going to say something I know I'm not supposed to say. I see you and I know that I'm a god. Or a goddess. Godlike!"

Bonnie emerges as truly heroic in the scene that both Hedges and Cates identify as the film's pivotal moment. When Arnie is arrested for climbing the town's water tower, Bonnie breaks her self-imposed exile and goes to the jail to demand his release. In this moment Bonnie is at her most powerful, but as she walks through the crowd of gaping onlookers, she is also at her most fragile. "That's when I think Gilbert really turns," says Hedges. "When she goes to the jail and says, Give me my son,' Gilbert snaps awake in a way. There's some pride in the family. We don't expect to be in the front of the line. We don't expect a tax break. We don't expect to be the first people saved when the flood comes. But don't desecrate our home. Don't humiliate our mother. She's not for your amusement. She's not your freak.' It just seems to me that's what family is about."

"What family is about" is how Hedges defines the theme of Gilbert Grape. "It is the thing I'm most proud of in the movie," he says, "particularly as it relates to the mother."

Both Hedges and Cates described the team of people who worked on the film as being very much like a family. And not just in metaphorical terms. Hedges's father, an Episcopal priest, has a small part in the film as the clergyperson at a funeral and Cates's daughter, son-in-law, and grandson play onlookers during one of the film's most critical scenes.

One of the recurring motifs in What's Eating Gilbert Grape is its characters' ability to "look on the bright side." What, then, is Bonnie's bright side? According to Hedges it is this: "She's kept her home in order. She didn't leave. And Arnie's going to be eighteen. Damn it, he's going to be eighteen. Her bright side would be good kids, all in all."

"What's Eating Gilbert Grape is a work of imagination," says Hedges. "Probably its impulses, the genesis of it, comes from very personal places in myself, but it's far from resembling my personal life. I feel that the writer's imagination is so much richer."

Still, Hedges, who was raised by his father, recalls many details from his childhood that no doubt enhanced his understanding of the food and weight issues he tackles in Gilbert Grape. "My dad's weight has fluctuated. He's never been as large as Bonnie is, but when I was a child he was a giant man, and then he lost a lot of weight," he recalls.

Hedges, Sr., took mealtime very seriously. He regarded it as a special time for the family to come together. "My dad did the cooking. And he did the grocery shopping and he loves food. He loves talking about food. When her writes us letters, there are lots of references to food. As a child, I never ate. And I was never forced to eat. I think it was my own sort of protest. Gilbert doesn't take a bite. And that, I suppose, was me."

Like Gilbert, Hedges's protest was rooted in his having to take on the role of caretaker at a very early age. "My brother is in no way Arnie, but he's two years younger than I am, and I was responsible for making sure that he got to where he was supposed to get. Part of the way that the family survived was by people looking after each other. It was kind of the law that if my brother wasn't where he was supposed to be, we were all at fault. If I didn't do this and everyone knew it was up to me to get it done, we were all at fault, so we had to look out for each other. It was a way to survive. It's an unfortunate way to be a child, because it's unjust, but it was how we managed," he recalls.

Unlike Gilbert, who bears some tenuous resemblance to the author, Bonnie is pure invention. As a matter of fact, in the earliest versions of the work, she was strictly a theatrical device. Gilbert Grape's first incarnation was in a dramatic monologue that Hedges wrote for a faculty recital when he was teaching at Bennington College in Vermont. "I liked Gilbert," says Hedges, and so he decided to continue exploring the character. But because he was writing the play as a vehicle for some of his young actor friends, he knew that casting the role of the mother would be nearly impossible. "I had to create a parent who isn't seen, but is talked about, and that's when AI came up with the idea for the mother. I thought, We'll just have her inside all the time."

"That was long ago and an entirely different story. I began to work with it, and then I realized that Gilbert worked in a grocery store. And I realized that he had a sister who was dealing with weight issues. And that he was always bringing in food. And that the father had killed himself. And then these things just started to multiply. Sometimes the initial impulse for something is really practical, and it's hard for people to believe that, because they think that everything is conceived out of some master plan."

Ultimately, Peter Hedges sees What's Eating Gilbert Grape as an exploration of the balance that must be struck between individuality and membership in a family. "How do you fulfill your individual purpose in life and yet be of a family? That's our task - to say we come from where we come, and we're composed of those who preceded us, and yet, we have to forge ahead. One of the ways to do that is to not run away. It's to stay present and to try to separate what's mine from what's theirs. And in that, there can be much dignity and much can be learned."

One writer to whom Peter Hedges has been widely compared is John Updike. Hedges shies away from the comparison. "It's a very nice compliment, but I think Updike fans who bought the book were probably a little disappointed. I'm a guy from Iowa who likes a good story, and who taught himself to read a novel by writing one. If I wrote a story that has touched people, I feel blessed."

Hedges's modesty notwithstanding, there is one striking similarity between the two writers. In a 1993 interview with Jan Nunley of the journal Episcopal Life, Updike said, "Any act of description is, to some extent, an act of praise, so that even when the event is unpleasant or horrifying or spiritually stunning, the very attempt to describe it is, in some way, part of that Old Testament injunction to give praise." In What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Peter Hedges subscribes to that injunction. He describes a family that is no stranger to the unpleasant or the horrifying. To a less sensitive eye, the Grape family would be written off as merely "dysfunctional." And yet, despite their problems, they emerge as a family that knows the meaning of devotion, tolerance, and love.

Hedges also describes a woman many people would simply look upon with disgust or condescension, and his description is rich in praise for her strength, dignity, and inner beauty. Hedges never shies away from painful truths, but he also never forgets to celebrate the humanity of his characters. Acts of praise, indeed.

Gloria Cahill is Education Director of Young Playwrights Inc. (a national playwright development organization for writers eighteen and younger) and a doctoral candidate in American Literature at the University of Arizona.


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