Oscars flashback: whatever happened to Gilbert Grape's Momma?

Johnny Depp, Darlene Cates and Leonardo DiCaprio at the What's Eating Gilbert Grape Premiere
Johnny Depp, Darlene Cates and Leonardo DiCaprio at the What's Eating Gilbert Grape Premiere Credit: Rex

Leonardo DiCaprio's first screen mother; Brando's Native American stand-in; The Crying Game's transgender hairdresser. They were all once big Oscars stories - but what happened next?

Darlene Cates, aka Momma from What's Eating Gilbert George?

The only cast member from What’s Eating Gilbert Grape to get an Oscar nomination was the 19-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio, for his portrayal of Gilbert’s (Johnny Depp) mentally disabled brother Arnie. But it was his on-screen mother, played by Darlene Cates, who remains a fan favourite more than two decades after the film’s release.

Cates, a famously amateur actress, was cast by director Lasse Hallstrom after he saw her plight - that of a woman weighing more than 400 lbs, who hadn’t left her house in five years. Depp called her “the shock of the film” and her performance “without flaw”, while DiCaprio called her “the best acting mama I ever had”.

Cates went on to take on more roles about obese women with sensitivity and style. In 1994 she appeared on an episode of Picket Fences as a woman who accidentally killed her husband by falling asleep on him - she initially confessed to intentionally murdering him, happier to be seen as a criminal than a lethally obese wife.

Darlene Cates and Leonardo Dicaprio in What's Eating Gilbert Grape Credit: Rex

In 1996 she had a role in TV show Touched by an Angel, as a woman who had dealt with her childhood guilt by overeating. A role as a maternal performer in a travelling freak show followed in 2001, and then, 13 years later, Cates took the title role in indie short Mother.

As she neared 60, Cates’ obesity posed continuous threats to her health: she was bed bound, and the process of losing nearly 250 pounds through four surgeries had involved three near-death experiences. She remains married to the man she wedded aged 14, however, and in 2012 hoped to lose enough weight, and gain enough mobility to get to the church to witness her grandson’s confirmation later that year.

Her fans remain loyal. When film blogger Brandon Hardesty dedicated an episode of his series No Small Parts to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape in 2015, there was an outpouring of affection for Cates. She said in 2012: “I can always tell when [Gilbert Grape has] been on TV. There'll be a rush of [Facebook] 'friend' requests.

Jaye Davidson from The Crying Game

When Jaye Davidson went to a wrap party in the early Nineties, the Californian-born, British model wasn’t expecting overnight success would dawn a few years later. Davidson, an untrained actor, was cast as transgender woman Dil in The Crying Game. He couldn’t have predicted that the shocking on-screen revelation of his male genitalia would have helped to earn him an Oscar nomination, either.

In contemporary video interviews from around the time, Davidson’s awkward rejection of the fame put upon him is clearly ignored by Hollywood. He described the process of watching himself in the Neil Jordan-directed film as “absolutely hideous”, adding that his friends “crucified him throughout [watching the film] and after.”

Jaye Davidson, Stephen Rea in The Crying Game Credit: REX

After missing out on the 1993 Best Supporting Actor gong, Davidson – who never even recruited an agent for fear that money would encourage him to take bad parts – took a role the next year as villainous Ra in Stargate, but retired shortly afterwards because he “genuinely hated the fame”.

Davidson’s androgynous looks meant he continued the modelling career he had begun before he was spotted by a casting assistant at a party, and he appeared in some high profile campaigns for Italian Vogue, Joseph and Gap, shot by photographers including Annie Leibowitz. Until the mid-Nineties, paparazzi shots still caught him mingling with the likes of Christian Slater and Kate Moss during Fashion Week.

But Davidson successfully shrunk from the public eye. He took a small role as a Nazi photographer in 2009 for short film The Borghilde Project, and The Crying Game producer Stephen Woolley said the last he had heard, Davidson was in Paris and “was really happy”.

Stephen Rea, Miranda Richardson and Jaye Davidson in February, 2017 Credit: Getty

The elusive star recently returned to the limelight - albeit very briefly - for a 25th anniversary screening of The Crying Game in London.

Sacheen Littlefeather, Marlon Brando’s Native American stand-in

During the 1973 Academy Awards, Sacheen Littlefeather was booed off stage while speaking on behalf of Marlon Brando. The Godfather star was rejecting his Best Actor Oscar in protest of the ongoing siege at Wounded Knee, that had begun exactly a month before the Awards and would result in the death of two Native Americans, as well as the entertainment industry’s treatment of Native American people.

Littlefeather had been involved with American Indian civil rights for some years before she took to the Oscars stage. She had occupied Alcatraz Island in San Francisco as part of a protest to return the land to American Indians in 1969. Brando got involved with the American Indian Movement the next year, and when he decided he wanted to be represented by a Native American to reject his Oscar, he was introduced to Littlefeather.  

Brando had written a 15-page speech for Littlefeather, but she was told by producers that if she spoke for more than 60 seconds, she would be either physically removed or arrested. So she improvised. Brando’s speech, which she read in its entirety to the press backstage, was published three days later by The New York Times.

Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann look nonplussed as Sacheen Littlefeather declines the Best Actor Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando Credit: Rex

As for his award, Roger Moore claimed he took the statuette home, where it was looked after until an armed guard came and picked it up for the Academy. The whole furore forced the Academy to rule out proxy acceptances in the future. Littlefeather recently admitted that she was “the subject of a big exclusion” within the industry, with the government telling studios not to hire her.

Despite this, Littlefeather racked up a few acting credits in films such as The Trial of Billy Jack, Winterhawk and Johnny Firecloud in the mid-Seventies. More recently, she appeared in Reel Injun, a documentary about the representation of Native Americans on screen, in 2009.

But Littlefeather remained more dedicated to campaigning for the rights of her people. Now approaching 70, she still lives in California and is the co-ordinator of the Kateri Prayer Circle in San Francisco. She recently gave an interview about the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations, saying that she had contacted Jada Pinkett Smith about her boycott of the ceremony.

With the passing decades, her presence at the Oscars has gained the respect and the meaning Brando originally intended: when a video of her speech was shared recently on Facebook, it went viral. Forty years on, discrimination in Hollywood remains problematic, and Littlefeather’s role in Oscars history has taken on new meaning.

Bruce Broughton, the disgraced Best Original Song Oscar Nominee

Only a couple of years have passed since composer Bruce Broughton became a “former Academy Award nominee”. The 70-year-old has had a long career scoring family-friendly films such as Honey, I Blew Up The Kid and Miracle on 34th Street, as well as episodes of Dallas.

But his professional pinnacle soon became a moment of bitter disappointment in 2014 when his first Oscar nomination was revoked.

Broughton’s song Alone Yet Not Alone received a Best Original Song nomination for the Christian historical adventure film of the same name - a remarkable achievement for a picture that only clocked $133,546 in its first month of the release.

During ‘The Race’ - the period in which filmmakers vie for the attentions and nominations of the voting Academy - Broughton had written to 70 Academy voters asking for their consideration. “I’m writing this note only because it is extremely unlikely that this small, independent, faith-based film will be seen by any Music Branch member,” he had typed. “It’s the only way I can think of to have anyone be aware of the song.”

However, Broughton is a former Governor of both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. In this context, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs revoked the nomination. In a statement she said: “No matter how well-intentioned the communication, using one's position as a former governor and current executive committee member to personally promote one's own Oscar submission creates the appearance of an unfair advantage.”

Broughton described the experience as being “kicked in the shins and other places.”

Since, he’s continued to compose, writing music for the History Channel miniseries Texas Rising, which earned Broughton his 13th Emmy Awards. He’s also conducted at concerts arranged in his honour in Spain, which must alleviate the Oscars snub somewhat.