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Mask (1985) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

rocky rusty mother school

Principal social themes: disabilities, addiction, end-of-life issues

Universal. PG-13 rating. Featuring: Eric Stoltz, Cher, Sam Elliott, Estelle Getty, Richard Dysart, Laura Dern, Dennis Burkley, Ben Piazza, Lawrence Monoson, Marsha Warfield, Barry Tubb, Kelly Mintner, Micole Mercurio, Harry Carey Jr. and Andrew Robinson. Written by Anna Hamilton Phelan. Cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs. Edited by Eva Gardos. Produced by Martin Starger. Directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Color. 120 minutes.


Based on the true story of Rocky Dennis, Mask is a character portrait of a teenager afflicted with craniodiaphyseal dysplasia (lionitis), a rare disease in which calcium is deposited on the cranium at an advanced rate, continually thickening the skull and distorting the features of the head, which becomes greatly enlarged. The condition is incurable and eventually fatal. Despite the poor prognosis, his mother tries to enable Rocky to enjoy as normal and happy a life as possible.


In a basically linear fashion, the plot of Mask covers the last year in the life of teenager Rocky Dennis (Eric Stoltz), afflicted with a terrible disease that distorts his features. Rocky is raised by his mother, Rusty (Cher), a free spirit who pals around with a motorcycle gang, whose members also help look after her son. Rocky has various hobbies, such as collecting baseball cards (his main goal is to gather a complete set of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers) and to save money to tour Europe by motorcycle with his friend Ben. When Rusty tries to register Rocky in the ninth grade at his new school in Azuza, California, the principal tries to dissuade her, suggesting Rocky would find his needs better met at a special school. She hands over Rocky’s grades from his old school, where he finished in the top 5 percent. She insists she knows her rights and would take legal action if necessary. This is a bluff, as the lawyer she cites is Dozer, a brawny, semi-mute member of the motorcycle gang. Next, Rocky attends his regular medical clinic appointment. A new doctor (Andrew Robinson) consults with Rocky and his mother, explaining that the pressure on his spinal cord is becoming greater due to the increasing size of his skull. His life expectancy is only three to six months. Rusty acts unconcerned, saying the same prognosis has been repeated to her for the past twelve years. The doctor is astounded by her attitude, as Rusty and her son breeze out of the office. When Rocky starts school, he at first has difficulty being accepted by his new classmates, who stare at him in amazement. When someone, first seeing him, asks Rocky to remove his mask, the deformed teenager playfully tears at his face, saying he just cannot take it off. Rocky’s wit and good humor soon win over the other students, particularly when he offers to tutor some of the slower students.

Gar (Sam Elliott), one of Rusty’s favorite boyfriends, a wandering biker, turns up and soon they resume their friendship. When her son suffers from his regular bad headaches, she manages to relieve the symptoms through autosuggestion, talking the headache into vanishing. One weekend, the biker gang takes Rocky and his mother to an amusement park. At the fun house, Rocky is astonished when he looks at himself in one of the trick mirrors, which makes him appear normal.

Although Rocky is usually upbeat, he sometimes gets the blues, such as when he realizes his deformity will prevent him from ever having a girlfriend. When he mentions this to his mother, she leaves the house for several hours, finally returning with a teenage prostitute who stays with Rocky for the evening (even though they just talk). Rocky has mixed feelings about his mother’s actions, partly insulted but somewhat pleased as well. Rusty sometimes has difficulty maintaining her positive front, and she often turns to pills or alcohol to drown her fears. Rocky urges her to kick the habit, but she simply ignores his nagging. Ben and Rocky continue to earn money for their trip. As the school year winds down, the principal approaches Rocky with a suggestion. He might earn some good money as an aide at a summer camp for the blind. Initially, he turns down the offer, although he agrees to think it over. At the end of the school year, Rocky wins top honors in almost every subject. Dozer speaks for the only time in the film, telling Rocky that he is proud of him. His grandparents visit one weekend, although they do not get along well with Rusty. They take the boy to a Dodgers baseball game. When they get home, Rusty has become stoned. Angered, Rocky tells his mother that he intends to take the summer camp job and maybe she can kick the habit while he is gone.

At the camp, Rocky meets a beautiful girl named Diana (Laura Dern), another aide who has been blind since birth. They spend all their free time together, falling in love. Rocky finds an innovative way to explain color to Diana, using a heated stone to depict red and a frozen stone to depict blue. At the end of camp, Diana wants to continue their friendship, but when her parents see Rocky, they are horrified by his appearance. Returning home, Rocky is delighted to find his mother has kicked her drug habit. He is also delighted when he learns that Gar has moved in. As he prepares for his next year of school, Rocky begins to feel depressed. He is thunderstruck when Ben tells him that he is moving away. When Ben suggests that their planned trip was just a daydream, Rocky throws a temper tantrum. He is also frustrated when attempting to telephone Diana, who never seems to be home. Actually, her parents are keeping them apart, destroying each tape he sends to her. Finally, Rocky takes a bus to visit her hometown, surprising her at the stable where she boards her horse. Diana suspected her parents were keeping them apart. Diana is being sent for one semester to an exclusive boarding school that has a special program for the blind. They kiss and agree to remain true to each other.

Rusty throws a party to cheer up Rocky up, but he goes to his room early, claiming he has a bad headache. He removes all the pins from his map of Europe that marked places he intended to visit. He straightens up his room carefully before going to bed. The next morning, Rusty is awakened by someone from the school calling to ask why Rocky has not shown up. She goes to his room and finds that he has died in his sleep. After Rocky is buried, Dozer arranges his baseball cards on Rocky’s tombstone.


Mask is an unforgettable character portrait brought to life by the credible performances of Eric Stoltz and Cher as Rocky and his mother. The film is magnificently directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Although largely uneventful, the picture is a remarkable case study that can provoke discussion. Since Rocky was essentially doomed from the outset, was there any better way for him to spend his last year? In what ways was Rusty’s approach successful or harmful to Rocky’s well-being? Did Rocky cope better with the situation than his mother, who became drug dependent? By befriending the bikers, she managed to form her own support group of outcasts. How did this benefit them? Was she correct in rejecting the doctors? Were Diana’s parents too protective of her, or were they just prejudiced against Rocky because of his deformity? Rocky managed to maintain his positive outlook by ignoring his condition and winning friends by mocking his own disabilities. He also relied on a technique to avoid sadness by concentrating on a single happy thought. Did this fail him toward the end? Rocky chose one day at camp, the “New Years in July” dance, to serve as his perfect memory. But this appeared to fail when he lost his dream of someday touring Europe. What really caused him to give up at the end? To what extent did Rocky’s disability mold his character? Finally, it is interesting to note that many of the intimate touches that appeared in the film were due to the real Rusty Dennis, who served as technical advisor in this project honoring her son.

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