My Favorite Movies – Mask (1985)

22 Jun

By Tanner Smith

I remember watching Peter Bogdanovich’s “Mask” for the first time at age 16 on TV and thinking to myself, “Huh…this isn’t like most coming-of-age teenage films…it’s mostly just people living their lives…I like watching these people…I care about them…this story isn’t going anywhere I expect…and I love it…wow…hey Dad, can we go to Hastings so I can buy the director’s-cut DVD?”

“Mask” is a wonderful film based (loosely) on the life of Rocky Dennis, who was a regular kid albeit with a facial deformity. In Siskel & Ebert’s initial review of the film in 1985, Siskel said it best: “Put a regular face on this kid, and you still have a terrific picture.” That was a testament to how much both he and Ebert admired the film’s characters and the filmmakers’ attempts to make them as real as possible.

Speaking of that review, I have to mention something that really bugs me–apparently, in marketing this film, the boy’s face was hidden in the trailers and advertisements. Both Siskel and Ebert hated that ploy too and I hate it too, because it made the kid look like a carnival freakshow, which totally goes against what the movie is about!

Thank God the marketing team behind the delightful 2017 film Wonder, also about a child with an unusual face, knew not to treat it like a gimmick. It’s the little things you have to appreciate to understand how far we’ve come in society.

Anyway, Siskel & Ebert were definitely right because once we’ve gotten past the initial shock of seeing what this kid Rocky looks like (and it’s a first-rate makeup job too), we get to like him as soon as we get to know him a little–and that’s only in the first few minutes; the rest of the film gives us an immensely likable character played beautifully by Eric Stoltz.

As I mentioned above, “Mask” is simply about how Rocky and his tough, messy, but overall loving mother Rusty (Cher) live their lives. We see Rocky getting by in a new school district and making some new friends who are of course turned off by his appearance at first (but like the audience, they accept him because he’s cool). We see Rusty hanging out with her motorcycle-riding friends and feeding a bad drug habit. And it’s even more interesting when it comes to the relationship between this mother and son, especially when Rocky tries to get his mother off drugs and she isn’t having it. We meet other people in their lives, such as Rusty’s complicated lover Gar (Sam Elliott) and a blind girl named Diana (Laura Dern) whom Rocky meets at a summer camp where he counsels. And…that’s pretty much the movie. It’s about how these people relate and go about their days. And because they’re such interesting characters, I’m all in.

Even when I first saw this film at age 16, I had to give kudos to this film for just being a slice of life.

And yeah, I know this is very loosely based on the true lives of these real-life people and Bogdanovich took some liberties in telling their story, but you know what? I don’t really care, because the movie still works as is.

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