Judge David Packard finds this Rocky more inspirational that the other one... you know, that boxing guy.
Sometimes the most unlikely people become heroes.
Until the mid-'80s, the sustenance of my movie-going life consisted of action-oriented fare from names like Lucas, Spielberg, Stallone, and Schwarzenegger. At 15 years old, I simply had zero interest in films that didn't have explosions, gunfire, lasers, blasters, strange creatures, or spaceships. I wanted Rambo, gremlins popping in microwaves, evil Nazis hell-bent on finding religious artifacts, and the Terminator.
Still, the premise of Mask—the true story of a teenager afflicted with a rare disease that leaves his face disfigured—surprisingly piqued my interest. I decided to set aside my desire for a more kinetic flick and give this one a try upon its release to the VHS rental market.
The film blew away my cinematic blinders. It was my first exposure to a real character-driven film. It provoked tons of emotions: sympathy, understanding, hope, appreciation, and inspiration. And it was the source of my first true cinema-inspired weep (not counting the tearing of my prepubescent eyes at Spock's sacrifice and subsequent funeral in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). Simply put, Mask is largely responsible for showing me a side of film that I didn't know existed.
19 years after the original theatrical release, the film returns to DVD in a director's cut that includes a complement of Bruce Springsteen songs originally intended for the film as well as a couple of extended scenes. The disc is a bit light on extras, and I was unimpressed with a video presentation that didn't compare to the superb audio offering. Minor quibbles aside, Mask: Director's Cut is a wonderful, heartbreaking film with stirring performances. Often moving, occasionally funny, and ultimately inspiring, it's not to be missed.
Facts of the Case
Based on a true story, Eric Stoltz portrays Rocky Dennis, a California teenager diagnosed at age four with craniodiaphyseal dysplasia (a rare disease occurring in approximately 1 out of every 22 million births). The affliction causes calcium to deposit within his skull at an abnormal rate, leaving Rocky's face horribly disfigured. Despite doctors' repeated prognoses of three to six month life expectancies, Rocky has continued to beat the odds over the years.
At a blood drive-picnic, we meet Rocky's pseudo-family with whom he and his fiercely supportive mother, Rusty (Cher), hang out: a colorful group of rowdy Harley bikers. Rusty tries her best to ignore the arrival of her old flame Gar (Sam Elliott) to the picnic, while Rocky and best friend Ben (Lawrence Monoson) swap baseball cards and discuss future plans to ride Harleys across Europe.
Rocky begins high school to the expected barrage of taunts, but his self-mocking approach to his condition disarms the barbs of any sting. Soon, the students see the person behind the deformities: an incredibly bright and witty individual (Rocky begins making money on the side by tutoring a fellow student and memorizes locker combinations that are not his own).
At home, Rusty battles demons of her own. Estranged from her own father, her life is a revolving door of men and drugs. This does not go unnoticed by Rocky, and she vows to "cut down" on the dope after a night of talking Rocky through one of his debilitating headaches. She tries to deny her returning feelings for Gar when the bikers attend a carnival and nighttime bonfire, but soon the two are back together.
Not long after Rocky's graduation from high school, a visit from Rocky's grandparents illustrates the chasm between father and daughter. Rusty deals with the pain of the situation in the only way she knows how: She returns to drugs. Angry with his mother, Rocky decides to accept a job as a counselor's aide at a summer camp for the junior blind. At the camp, he is immediately taken by Diana (Laura Dern), a blind girl who seems to know as much about horses as Rocky knows about Harleys. They soon fall in love, but the end of camp forces them to part ways. Diana's parents meet Rocky and are obviously troubled by his physical abnormalities. During the time Rocky is away at camp, Rusty breaks down after repeatedly trying to compose a letter to her son, leaving Gar to offer his support.
Soon after Rocky returns home, his life takes a turn of George Bailey-like proportions: Diana's parents thwart his phone calls, Ben backs out on their European Harley dream by planning a move to Michigan, and a biker dies. Rusty's assurance that she's finally clean seems to be the only good thing left in his life. Rocky takes a bus to visit Diana at her stables where the two spend some very brief time together.
Finally, on a bright California morning, Rusty receives a phone call that Rocky is not at school.
Let's start with the story itself: it is superb. As I watched the film, I once again found myself not really noticing Rocky's facial deformities as early as the biker picnic. Everyone treats Rocky with the respect and dignity that every person deserves. Sure, he looks different, but Rocky is like many other young American males: an above-average high school student with grand dreams and a yearning for that first girlfriend. Surprisingly, it's the scenes where notice is brought to Rocky's condition—an insult from a group of students, a torturous headache that requires not medication but the voice of his mother—that jar us back into the reality of the film. In essence, the focus is on what really shapes Rocky into the person he is: his friendships, dreams, interests and dislikes (sweetly conveyed in a short poem he writes for school), and concern for his mother's drug problem. We literally forget about the "mask" and see Rocky for who he is.
We can do this thanks to the amazing efforts of Eric Stoltz. Stoltz's ability to shine Rocky's personality through the layers of Oscar-winning prosthetic makeup is one of the finest acting performances I've seen in a film. Despite his feeling that he was wearing tons of ski masks for the role, Stoltz manages to convey Rocky's emotions through his eyes, vocal delivery, and body language. Complementing his acting is an almost-equally fine performance by Cher. I'll admit, I'm not the world's biggest Cher fan by any stretch of the imagination, but she's perfect in this role. She's tough yet vulnerable, and her reaction at the end of the film is one of my favorite movie moments. She's a whirlwind of anger and violence, desperate to deny the finality of Rocky's affliction that she knew she would one day have to face. It is a tough, heartbreaking scene to watch, but I can picture few actresses pulling this off in the way Cher did.
As a Bruce Springsteen fan, I'm pleased to see the Boss's songs (including "Badlands," "Thunder Road," and "Born in the U.S.A.") added back into the film. According to director Peter Bogdanovich, a squabble between Universal and MCA on videocassette royalties was part of the reason that Springsteen's songs were nixed from the film. The tunes sound even better in the nice selection of audio options we're given, which include full 5.1 surround in both Dolby Digital and DTS. As expected with this type of film, there's not a lot of rear channel action, but home theater enthusiasts will find Harleys rumbling across the room in several scenes.
Director Peter Bogdanovich's commentary track was one of the more enjoyable I've listened to in recent memory. There's the standard stuff you expect from a director commentary: details of where scenes were shot (on location versus stage sets), his history and relationships with the cast and crew, why scenes were framed or cut a particular way, and highlighting scenes or actions that were improvised, ad-libbed, or acted with dialogue written directly on the set just prior to shooting (Gar's argument with Rusty shortly after her parents arrive is an example of such a scene). Bogdanovich also drops nuggets like his personal homages to friends by having certain Universal films playing on television sets (I totally missed Boris Karloff's Frankenstein playing on the television during the biker Halloween party) and Stoltz's 15 pound weight loss resulting from the fact that he could only "drink" his meals. Bogdanovich's memory is rarely foggy as he recounts his association with the film, and there are few dead spots of silence during his commentary.
Aside from the commentary track, the lone extra, "Mask Revealed: A Conversation with Director Peter Bogdanovich," is surprisingly meaty in its approximate 22-minute run time. While some of the information repeats from the director's commentary, there's still plenty of interesting tidbits to be learned. Bogdanovich's revelations include how Stoltz nudged Rob Lowe out of the Rocky Dennis role by uttering a single word of dialogue in the screen test, Laura Dern's loss of sight because of her determination to unfocus her eyes in the role of the blind Diana, and discussion of the two extended scenes (the bonfire song number and the biker funeral) for this DVD release. Also included is footage from Cher's original 1985 screen test, which Bogdanovich wanted to forego but had to do at the studio's request.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My nitpicks aren't with the film itself but rather with the video presentation and the questionable lack and placement of extras. Granted, they're minor gripes, but the rebuttal witnesses must be heard.
Almost immediately, I noticed that the picture seemed "dark." Even in outdoor scenes under a shining California sun, the video had this odd veil of dimness. Without a full restoration of the film being done, I could understand and accept the bits of debris here and there (white flecks tend to pop up from time to time and were particularly noticeable in a nighttime scene), but why the subdued video presentation? It was only later while watching the "Mask Revealed" feature that Bogdanovich stated the cinematography was given a "darker focus" to more closely match the intent of the original presentation. Okay, so the picture may be darker due to artistic merit rather than a product of the transfer, but I didn't prefer it this way.
Also, I would have expected more in the extras department besides a conversation with the director. How about a spotlight on the real Rocky Dennis and interviews with those who knew him? Where's the extra highlighting the incredible prosthetics and makeup work done by Michael Westmore and Zoltan Elek, who nabbed an Oscar for Best Makeup?
Finally, stick around until the credits are finished, as Cher has a little extra discussing her involvement in the film and her ongoing association with the Children's Craniofacial Association (CCA). I have to ask: Why was this segment placed at the end of the credits and not as a selectable extra? Aside from discussing her communications with the real-life Rusty Dennis, Cher brings attention to the CCA and the wonderful benefits the association brings to both children and parents alike. Sadly, many folks who pick up this DVD will miss this extra if they stop the disc once the credits start rolling. For a DVD already lacking in extras, it's even more inexcusable that this informative featurette was not placed on the bonus features menu of the disc.
Mask: Director's Cut is a film that should be experienced by everyone. In fact, it should be recommended viewing for teens, who will surely sympathize with the prejudice and ridicule that Rocky endures and overcomes. Mask is emotional and honest without being sugary or preachy, and it is wonderfully acted and directed. I can't recommend this film enough.
The court hereby finds Mask: Director's Cut not guilty and free to go. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• "Mask Revealed: A Conversation with Director Peter Bogdanovich"
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