Movie Article

MAKING IT BIG

NEWCOMER DARLENE CATES

There's a photo on the family fridge in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and it shows how Darlene Cates looked at the age of 14: like a movie star. By the time of her debut as Gilbert's mother in that film, Cates, now 46, had become considerably heavier than your average actress. ''In the movie I weighed 489,'' says Cates at home in suburban Dallas. ''I weigh right around 520 now.'' Yet with her hair rinsed free of the goo that made it look dirty in Grape, and her face radiant with newfound success, Cates looks somewhat closer to her old self. In a wheelchair in her modest brick home, surrounded by her beloved Chihuahuas, a collection of Renaissance angels, and carved stone animal figurines, Cates takes a close look at how she grew. ''I haven't been big all my life,'' she says. The problem first crept up when her husband Bob, a Marine, went to Vietnam in 1967. ''Every time he went overseas I'd binge, and when I got pregnant I'd gain weight. And my thyroid shut down, which didn't help.'' But what really hurt was a Dalkon Shield, which kept her bedridden from 1986 to '88 with pelvic infections and housebound until 1991 because of depression. ''I gained 150 pounds and lost the use of my legs.'' (She can walk only short distances, painfully.) She nearly lost her life, too. ''I really beat myself up about being a burden, and I didn't have the courage to kill myself.'' Saved from suicide by Prozac, she got her high school diploma and began hosting a TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) group in her home. The regional TOPS director recommended her for a Sally Jessy Raphael show on weight trouble, where she beguiled the Grape filmmakers with her articulate charm. Cates says the toughest scene she did was her biggest: her character's showdown with the cops. First, she had to walk-an excruciating task. But the torment of being gawked at was worse: ''After the first take I just cried and cried because it was so real.'' Afterward, the crew sprang a surprise birthday party on her. ''It hit me that I had been a fool to doubt that it would all work out.'' Cates urges the less overweight to share her optimism. ''How many times have you heard people say, if I can lose 15 pounds, I'm gonna go on that cruise or buy that dress. Buy the dress! Take the cruise! Weight can stop you from doing some things, but it can't stop you from reaching for dreams.'' -Tim Appelo

Originally posted Jan 14, 1994 Published in issue #205 Jan 14, 1994 Order article reprints