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1993's What's Eating Gilbert Grape ended up being a memorable film for a number of different reasons. It began Leonardo DiCaprio's quest for an Oscar. It showcased Johnny Depp's most dramatic film role to date, and it introduced the world to one of the most memorable matriarchs in film history. Sadly, we have just learned that Darlene Cates, who played Bonnie "Momma" Grape passed away on Sunday at the age of 69.
Darlene Cates wasn't an actress before taking the role in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. According to TMZ, she was discovered by the film's director Lasse Hallström on a television talk show about people who had become too large to leave the house. However, since the director couldn't find a professional actress to play the role he was looking for, he decided that an amateur was necessary and Cates turned out to be perfect.
Following her breakout role, Darlene Cates appeared in small parts on a couple of TV series in the 1990s including Picket Fences and Touched by an Angel. Her last role will reportedly be in the independent film Billboard which is set to be released this year.
However, without question, the role that Darlene Cates will forever be known for is that of the mother in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. In a movie that is full of amazing performances, the performance by Cates can't be overlooked. What's Eating Gilbert Grape follows Johnny Depp as the titular character who, following the death of his father, is just trying to do everything he can to hold his family together. That's easier said than done, however, as the family includes younger brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is mentally challenged, and mother Bonnie, who due to her weight is unable to leave the house.
Watching the performance it's hard to believe that Darlene Cates had never acted before. She's a natural in the role, though in interviews at the time she admitted that much of that was because many aspects of the part were very close to mimicking her real life, such as this scene below, where Momma laments being a burden on her children.
According to her family, who announced Darlene Cates' passing on Facebook, her passing was unexpected, however, the actress passed away peacefully in her sleep overnight. It's clear that Cates was in a lot of pain due to her size, which likely only increased as she aged. The family takes comfort in the fact that the pain is now gone.
While Darlene Cates is gone, her performance will likely always be remembered.