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Article – ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ – Leo’s First Oscar Nomination


Posted February 5, 2016 by

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‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ – Leo’s First Oscar Nomination

Every year we seem to come across someone who has been nominated for multiple Oscars and either never won, or have not won in a very long time. It is only when they give performances worthy of a nomination do we remember that these individuals have been “robbed” in the past. Meryl Streep has been nominated many, many times and she has lost many, many times – but because she has won an Oscar we tend to let it slide. Johnny Depp is another actor who has been nominated many times, but he has never won. Depp comes up quite a bit when it comes to Oscar wins due to his transformative roles. The big one as of late, though, has been Leonardo DiCaprio. It is no surprise that he has been at the big awards ceremony multiple times, but it is a surprise that he’s never gotten to give his speech and take home his award. We can argue every year on who gives great performances, but I want to take everyone back to a time when Leonardo DiCaprio was not a household name and a time when quite possibly everyone thought he had a disability. That time was 1993 in his transformative role in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. We will first discuss the film, then we will compare his performance to Tommy Lee Jones’ performance in The Fugitive, which was the role that beat DiCaprio, and won the 1994 supporting actor Oscar.

As I was introducing this film to someone that has never seen it, I wondered how many others have not had this privilege. If you have never had the pleasure of watching What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, I encourage you to find it in your local video store (if your town has one still, mine does) or find it online to rent or purchase. The IMDB brief synopsis: Gilbert Grape is a film Centred around the Grape family Ellen and Amy and their two brothers Arnie and Gilbert, who, along with their morbidly obese widowed mother Bonnie Grape are striving to survive and coexist with the absence of a father figure, low wage work and seventeen-year-old Arnie’s severe mental condition. The mention of Johnny Depp and Oscars earlier is a good nod, because he is the other acting force to be reckoned with in this movie as he stares as Gilbert Grape. Depp gives a wonderful performance and I feel without him the compassion we have for the brothers would not have worked well. We are not here to focus on Depp, but we are focusing on the character Arnie who has a severe mental condition that could take his life at any time. At this point and time you would have recognized Leo from only a few things – an episode of Roseanne, Critters 3, and thanks to HBO you may have recognized him from a film called Poison Ivy. These are pretty obscure parts that wouldn’t really make him stand out enough for you to know that you have seen him in something and this is why, for the better part of a few years, that I believed Leonardo DiCaprio to have a severe mental condition. I was young when this movie came out, but movies were my life. HBO helped cement movies that would be played in my head as many times as TNT would play Shawshank Redemption – it was on all the time. I grew to love the compassion that Gilbert had for Arnie and vice versa. Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio were golden to me due to this movie. Not to mention John C. Reilly and Juliette Lewis are also in this film. Hollywood in the 90s were about to take on some big topics. Tom Hanks was battling AIDS around this time in Philadelphia and Leonardo DiCaprio was showing you the love everyone could feel for a person with a disability. The world was not used to seeing transformative performances like they are today. We didn’t have method actors who would stay in character on and off the set. It didn’t seem that we had people going through extremes to make a film – It all just seemed real. Without having a name cemented in Hollywood yet, Leo commanded the screen and made you notice him, not for an over the top performance, but for a real performance. The real life feel of all of Leo’s characters all started right in a small town called Endora in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. He was not sacrificing for his craft, he was honing his craft to perfection and wanted the world to know that he arrived. You laugh with Arnie and you cry with Arnie and just like in the 90s when you did not know his name, it was only Arnie and not Leonardo DiCaprio. Today when we watch a DiCaprio film, we sometimes get pulled off the screen and remember it is him, but for the most part, we believe that we are actually watching this character come to life. Leonardo DiCaprio was 19 when What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? came out and I would put his performance in that up against any now that he is at the age of 41. DiCaprio had the chance to be in what is now a Halloween classic, Hocus Pocus, but he turned down the role to become Arnie in this film. Some would say he was stupid for turning it down, but no one knew how big that movie would be – but look who survived longer.

The first big performance of his career and he is invited to the biggest dance of them all – The Oscars. No performance by Leonardo DiCaprio can ever be described as a small performance, which is why he is invited to that same dance year after year. This year the nominations for Best Supporting Actor were Leonardo DiCaprio (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?), Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List), Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive), John Malkovich (In the Line of Fire), Pete Postlethwaite (In The Name of the Father)…And the Oscar goes to…Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive. I have to admit that after I watched What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and then researched who won the Oscar that year, I had to watch that film and compare notes. When I saw that it was Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive that seemingly made sense to me, but as I sat there thinking about it, I realized that I could not tell you one thing about the performances in that movie. I could tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed The Fugitive and that I think it is a fun and easy watch, but nothing else was coming to mind. This performance review is not going to be a breakdown of Leo vs. Jones, and this is definitely not saying that one person deserved it over the other – I just want to open the discussion of Leo’s first Oscar loss compared to the mountain of talent he is going against today. I will go on record saying that I love Tommy Lee Jones. I do not think there is a film that he has made that I could say I did not like. The content may not have been my favorite, but any film with Tommy Lee Jones was going to have likeability just because his acting demands it. With that disclaimer noted, there has to be an agreement that when you think back to all of Tommy Lee Jones movies, you get exactly what you pay for – Tommy Lee Jones. While I was watching The Fugitive, I could not help but think about Men in Black and how much I enjoyed the movie, but I was noticing that his character was pretty much the exact same. Then I thought about Man of the House (a lesser like Jones film of mine) and realized that his character in that was the same person. I am taking nothing away from Tommy Lee Jones here, please note that, but when you go to see a movie and it has Tommy Lee Jones in it, you are going to like it, because much like a well crafted formulaic film, it is going to follow the same path as you previously loved. Now looking back at this time in film, I could not think of a Jones performance that was up for an Oscar, but this one looked like what he was cranking out now. Ponder this – Was The Fugitive the film where Jones peaked and he just continuously reenacted his role? Is this the character that we love, and not the character of Agent Kay in Men in Black. This role was not a transformative role that saw someone becoming someone completely different. This was Tommy Lee Jones putting on a U.S. Marshal badge (Not the one he wore when he starred as the same character in U.S. Marshals) and chased Harrison Ford as himself. Once again, I am not knocking Jones for utilizing this to his advantage, I am just pointing out the differences between Jones and DiCaprio when their performances went against each other. Leonardo was destined for greatness and Tommy Lee Jones plateaued in his performance ability.

When you see Leo eating bison liver and living inside of animal carcases in The Revenant, you will need to compare him to the transformative performance that Eddie Redmayne gives in The Danish Girl. Anyone could argue that this was a transformative performance, but I would say it was sacrificing for your craft. If he does not win this year, it will be okay. He will come back again and again. To me, it is not about him coming back, but it will always be about him stepping into the light. Leonardo DiCaprio’s first performance that got him to the Oscars is the performance that should be talked about when discussing his success and miscomings in the Academy’s eyes. Arnie has lived in my heart for 22 years thanks to his performance. I’m still sad that he did not win that Oscar. I would like to know what Gilbert and Arnie are doing now that they have left Endora. I’ve seen what Leo has been up to. He has done great things, but to me Arnie was his best creation. Hit play on What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and meet Arnie – You won’t see Leonardo DiCaprio anywhere – you will just see a boy with a severe mental condition that you want to befriend and help take care of. For all of his characters and performances, it is Arnie that I thank Leonardo DiCaprio for the most.


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Drew and Champ

Drew Oliver
Alone In The Theater
Freelance Contributor

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One Comment


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