- Movie Rating -

Mask (1985)

| March 8, 1985

Mask is a movie that forced me to let my guard down.  I was ready to be cynical.  Here is a movie about a kid with a physical deformity and it comes packaged with a movie poster that features a silhouette of someone standing on a beach with their fists in the air while an inspirational tagline floats over their head – it looks like the kind of thing you’d see in a classroom.  But five minutes into this movie, my shoulders went down, my cynicism dissipated and I was swept along.

This is one of the most natural and affecting movies that I have seen in a very long time, a sweet love story about someone who looks a little different but whose physical ailments quickly leave us once we get to know him.  His name is Rocky Dennis and when we meet him, the movie doesn’t point to his ailment. Our initial reaction is only natural but once we get comfortable with his personality, we hardly seem to notice. He is an average kid who lives with his mother Rusty (Cher) who travels in a circle of biker friends, takes drugs and has a never-ending series of rotating boyfriends. She is irresponsible, but a good mother who loves her son and we get a sense of routine when she tries to enroll him in school and the principal (visibly shocked) suggests that he might be better off in a school that would “be better suited to his needs”. “Do you have algebra?”, she asks. “Yes”, the man says. “Those are his needs.” she tells him. There is a tone to her voice and an urgency that suggests that she has had this conversation over and over and over. What makes the moment special is what Rocky says next, smiling at the principal he tells him “Don’t worry, Mr. Simms. I look weird, but otherwise I’m real normal. Everything’ll be cool. ”

Rocky has a specific personality, he has a way of disarming the initial shock of his looks the moment he begins to speak. He’s smart, he’s sensitive, he is growing aware of the world outside, of motorcycles and of girls. He writes poems about the things that he likes and has a dream of someday riding motorcycles across Europe with his best buddy.

His mother has always instilled in her son the constant reminder that he is completely normal, “You’re more beautiful on the inside than most people”, she tells him. He has a way of disarming people’s reaction like a scene at his locker at school when he notices a group of kids staring at at him. “What’s the matter? Haven’t you ever seen anyone from the planet Vulcan before?” Later, on his first day at summer camp, the counselor instructs him to take off his mask and Rocky, in good spirits, responds “I could try but I don’t think it’ll come off”. I love the way we see the principal’s initial reaction and then later we see the same man approach him as if he were an old friend.

The movie rarely points to Rocky’s looks, it only comes into the story sideways and only at specific moments. There is a moment at a carnival when he and his friends are looking in a funhouse mirror when he sees himself, he sees what he might look like with a normal face. The only time it ever becomes a hindrance is when he gets a girlfriend for the first time. Rocky becomes a counselor at a summer camp for the blind, where he meets Diana Adams (Laura Dern) a blind fellow counselor and the two falls in love in one of the most beautiful teen romances that I can remember. They share the kinds of wonderful moments that teenagers share, when love means having time together, not with sex, but just together doing the same things. The stumbling block happens when he meets her parents who are shocked by Rocky’s looks and don’t want their daughter involved with him. Returning home, he tries time and again to call but is told that she can’t come to the phone.

Most of this comes from Stoltz who plays this role outside the make-up, as if he’s playing a character without a disability. He creates a specific character that we care about from the moment that we hear him speak. I have a litmus test for a movie like this: Would the character be as interesting if he didn’t have this disorder? My problem with The Elephant Man is that if you looked under John Merrick’s physical deformity, there isn’t much of a character to care about. In the case of Rocky Dennis, he could have been portrayed as a teenager without a disfigurement and he would have been just as interesting.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1985) View IMDB Filed in: Drama