You won't find a single picture of Rocky Dennis in any of the publicity packages for "Mask" (Friday, at the Cinerama Dome and Avco Center Cinema), a trick that capitalizes upon his looks and teases the audience with them in the same way that "Elephant Man" sensationalized our first glimpse of the grotesquely afflicted John Merrick.
However, director Peter Bogdanovich's approach to his singular young hero is forthright--it's one of his film's great strengths. We meet Rocky for the first time in an utterly commonplace manner, like any other 15-year-old dressing for junior high school in a sunbaked Southern California valley tract-house suburb.
The real Rocky, on whom first-time screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan based her script, suffered from a cruelly disfiguring bone disease, "the look of the lion" that caused his skull to grow out of all proportion to his body.
But to the camera, Rocky is no big deal as he combs his red hair and happily checks his baseball-card collection. Look all you want to, this attitude says. Since you can only stare so long, you begin to listen to Rocky (beautifully played by Eric Stoltz), to watch him with other people and to discover what is really exceptional about him--his levelheadedness, his sweet spirit.
By the time he has to face yet another first day at a new school, he has us as solidly behind him as his amazing mom, Rusty (Cher, ferociously fine), and their sprawling, scruffy "family" of bikers.
"Mask" is about outsiders, and the loneliness that comes from being on the outside. The moral is not deeply hidden: As we watch Rocky make his way through shocked stares and cutting remarks at a new school, or as we watch upper-middle-class straights pull away from him in horror, we see the traps of judging only by exteriors.
"Mask's" achievement is that it stirs our memories too; it brings back firsthand the trauma of newness, the isolation of the solitary cafeteria lunch that everyone has felt at least once--magnified, in Rocky's case, several thousand times. These moments and Rocky's tender yearnings for someone to care about are what give the film its broad emotional appeal. And they are worth all our suspicions that perhaps the decks have been stacked a little too adroitly.
"Mask" is a true story--with embellishments, and those curlicues almost pull the movie into the valley of the marshmallow: Dozer (Dennis Burkley), the hulking, almost-mute biker, giver of warm puppies. The biking encampments themselves: more like the Bluebirds with tattoos--everything but taffy pulls and friendship rings. It's at these points that writer Hamilton Phelan needs less affection and a more acute cutting edge for us to believe her unconditionally, which is what the rest of her script makes us want to do.
Fortunately, the core of "Mask" is mother and son (and father and daughter as well), and here the writer and director have caught the pulls of emotionally interdependent parents and kids exactly. Rusty, cheerfully foul-mouthed, has a taste for lowlife men and amphetamine highs. The latter worries Rocky and appalls Rusty's visiting parents, including her father (Richard Dysart), whose first words are put-downs and who will not see his daughter's smallest gestures toward making herself acceptable in her daddy's eyes.
She does have Gar (Sam Elliott, an actor with authority and a nice, watchful humor to him), an itinerant motorcycle mechanic, who has been in and out of Rusty's revolving-door love life since Rocky was tiny. For most of the movie, he's back in--mainly to be rumpled and rumbling and protective and there. But Rusty's rampant drug problem provokes one fight too many, and Rocky takes his first step away from her, counseling at a summer camp for the blind.
The camp was real, its present kids and its director are in the film. And there Rocky may or may not have won the heart of a rich blind girl (Laura Dern, exceptionally touching), the first to really "see" him. "Mask's" magic is how much we want to believe these lovers, and the delight in watching Rocky flower as he takes care of someone else. (The film's nicest throwaway line is here; pressed to describe his mother, Rocky says gallantly that his mom "is more the free-lance type.")
Bogdanovich has always had an exceptional rapport with actors. A few have never been as human as for him: Audrey Hepburn in "They All Laughed"; Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman in "The Last Picture Show." In "Mask," the performances are Cher's and Eric Stoltz's, who draw this fierce mother and her tender son with every last drop of devotion. It was obvious from her work for Robert Altman in "Come Back to the 5 and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" that Cher had a lovely range as an actress. It might have been evident in "Silkwood," except that we never got a chance to see Cher's character in close-up. She still works with something of a mask of her own, but the depths underneath it are powerful.
Stoltz is simply amazing in the variety, the humor and the absolute lack of self-pity with which he draws Rocky, whose spirit soars so far beyond his body. This should also re-establish Sam Elliott as the real article when the Clark Gable roles come along, and you may also remember Laura Dern, and Kelly Binder as the young hooker whose evening in the Dennis household is so . . . educational.
Among the film's other exceptional credits are Laszlo Kovacs' intuitive, fluid camerawork; Michael Westmore's impeccable makeup design, Norman Newberry's art direction, which catches perfectly the oppressiveness of a tacky house set too close to traffic, and Eva Gardos' nicely rhythmed editing. And in all the current brouhaha, we should not forget producer Martin Starger, since it is producers who get projects under way to begin with, and this one must have seemed peculiarly risky.
And having seen the film both in an earlier version with the Springsteen music and now with the Seger music, and in all deference to a director's vision and to The Boss, I cannot believe that we love Rocky Dennis one scintilla less because he listens to Bob Seger instead of to Bruce Springsteen. 'MASK' A Universal Pictures release of a Martin Starger production. Producer Starger. Director Peter Bogdanovich. Co-producer Howard Alston. Screenplay Anna Hamilton Phelan based on the story of Rocky Dennis. Camera Laszlo Kovacs. Supervising Editor Eva Gardos. Film editor Barbara Ford. Art director Norman Newberry. Set decorator Richard J. deCinces. Rocky makeup design Michael Westmore. Sound Keith Webster, Crew Chamberlain. Associate producers George Morfogen, Peggy Robertson. With Cher, Sam Elliott, Eric Stoltz, Laura Dern, Richard Dysart, Kelly Binder, Harry Carey Jr, Dennis Burkley.
Running time: 2 hours.
MPAA-rated: PG-13 (may be too intense for children under 13).