Film Review: Mask (1985)


1980s were very cruel decade for Peter Bogdanovich. Once hailed as one of the greatest American film makers and the icon of New Hollywood, he was beset by personal tragedies and financial ruin. One of the rare bright spots in that dark period was Mask, 1985 biopic that was not only critically acclaimed but turned out to be a box-office hit as well.

The film is based on the true story. In the beginning we are introduced to Roy "Rocky" Dennis (played by Eric Stoltz), California teenager who lives apparently ordinary life in lower middle class neighbourhood, goes to school, collects baseball cards, listens to rock’n’roll and dreams of taking motorcycle ride around Europe. The only thing that sets Rocky apart is his face, grotesquely disfigured by craniodyaphiseal dysphasia, rare genetic condition that makes calcium build up in his skull. Diagnosed in early childhood, Rocky learned to cope with other people’s reaction to his monstrous look and defied doctors’ prediction of his mental retardation, blindness and early death. He lives normal life despite his mother Florence "Rusty" Dennis (played by Cher) indulging in lifestyle that involves drinking, drugs and promiscuity. Thankfully, most of Rusty’s friends belong to bikers’ gang which serves as her extended family, including Rusty’s part-time boyfriend Gar (played by Stephen Elliott) who serves as father figure to the boy. Rocky thrives in school, but his newly aroused interest in opposite sex leads him to take summer job in camp for blind children, where he would meet Diana Adams (played by Laura Dern), beautiful blind girl and one of the rare persons that wouldn’t initially judge him by his looks. Rocky starts the romance, but his happiness is short-lived.

The script was written by Anna Hamilton Phelan, former actress who had met and befriended real life Rocky and Rusty during her stint in California hospital. Despite sharing many elements with "disease of the week" TV films that used popular in 1980s, it generally evades overt sentimentality and certain deviations from the facts (the years when plot is set, absence of Rocky’s brother) don’t look unnatural. Bogdanovich as director does very good job, mainly in establishing nearly perfect pace, which allows audience to get properly introduced to characters and the plot to develop naturally. He also uses very ingenious way to mark the passage of time – a very important element for the plot – by giving Rocky an adorable puppy who would grow up to become a huge dog. Extremely good job was made by Michael Westmore and Zoltan Elek who created a make-up necessary to make protagonist as physically accurate to real life look of Rocky as possible.

Eric Stoltz, despite being covered under that make-up for the whole time, gives incredibly powerful performance of a teenager who took cheerful, laid-back and ultimately healthy disposition to life despite his terrible affliction. He wins audience just as easily as he wins people around him and only late in the film, when the cruel fate conspires to crush his dreams, we can actually see his pain and anguish. Cher, famous singer in her first major acting role, gives also a great performance portraying a woman which unconditionally loves her son despite her own terrible flaws and obvious errors in judgement. Cher won Best Actress Award at Cannes Film Festival and Mask was in many ways responsible for adding film career to her achievements.

Unavoidable comparisons with similarly-themed The Elephant Man make Mask much more audience-friendly, "sweetened" and Hollywood-like. Protagonists might have similar condition and suffer the same ultimate fate, but this film as different from Lynch’s as sunny 20th California is different from bleak industrial landscapes of Victorian England. We are introduced to protagonist and his grotesque looks from the beginning, we get used to it quickly and it simply ceases to be an issue. Protagonist lives in happy family, almost never experience serious adversity and the lack of drama and villains must be compensated with beefed-up quarrels with mother over her lifestyle, as well using some over-the-top eccentrics among Rusty’s biker friends. Mask because of that looks slightly less realistic, at least for more cynical and jaded segments of the audience. Most of the viewers would, however, forgive Bogdanovich and Phelan for their occasional drifts into sentimentality and enjoy well-made and at time emotionally powerful piece of cinema.

RATING: 7/10 (++)

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Extraordinary film!
I will always remember the way Rocky Dennis taught the blind girl the colors.