Mask – An Eric Stoltz Starring Role That Was Different From Where He Began

The year 2020 marked the 35th anniversary of the beloved science-fiction, blockbuster film Back to the Future, released in the summer of 1985.

After being released from filming Back to the Future, all was not actually lost for Eric Stoltz as his starring role in Mask became a moderate hit for the young actor.

The fate of Back to the Future was almost an entirely different story when first choice Michael J. Fox to play the lead was unavailable due to scheduling conflicts with his hit sitcom Family Ties. Enter the second choice, a young, red-haired unknown poised for greatness in the role of a lifetime… for five weeks that is. Welcome back Michael J. Fox!

Much history of Back to the Future’s stature has already been written as has the footnote of second choice Eric Stoltz. After five-weeks the filmmakers all agreed. Mr. Stoltz was a fine actor, but lacked the razor sharp, comedic chops required to make the movie as funny as intended to be. They needed a different type of funny. Stoltz’s onscreen persona has a sensitive, natural, unshowy nature that has been showcased in roles both big and small. Think his role as the drug dealer in Pulp Fiction or the lovelorn Keith Nelson in John Hughes’s underrated Some Kind of Wonderful.

His talents have never been put to better use than his feature film debut as a leading man in Peter Bogdanovich’s film, Mask, released the same year as Back to the Future. Based on a true story, he plays Rocky Dennis, a young boy born with a bone disorder known as Craniodiphyseal Dysplasia that causes a buildup of calcium deposits. It is also referred to as Lionitis, wherein the deposits can distort the face to resemble that of a lion, as is the case with Rocky. We are told early on that he would never live to see his seventh birthday.

Alongside Eric Stoltz, Mask featured Cher as well as Sam Elliott in a supporting role.

Mask begins when Rocky’s team of doctors that have long been a part of his progress, or degeneration, put a new doctor on the staff through some sort of initiation. They snicker at him, because he thinks he’s going to educate Rocky and his mother on the inevitable outcome of his rare diagnosis. His candor is nothing new to them and it is clear that these hospital visits are a mere formality and a bit of a running joke.

The film focuses on the relationship between Rocky and his mom, Rusty, played by Cher in a performance that, along with her Academy Award nominated supporting role in Silkwood, would be a precursor to her walk to the Oscar podium for best actress in Moonstruck (1987). Cher is said said to have stated that Rusty Dennis is her favorite role. The film meant so much to her that she was inspired to become involved with the charitable organization Children’s Craniofacial Association, as well as its national spokesperson.

A young Laura Dern is also among the supporting cast in her first featured role as Rocky’s friend Diana.

Mask is clearly about Rusty’s love for her son. Rocky is fully of pluck and shares a genuine levity to anyone he meets that is briefly shocked by his appearance. “What’s the matter, never seen anyone from the planet Vulcan before. Beep Beep” he says, immediately putting them at ease. This spirit is a quality instilled in him by his Mom, determined in her mission to teach her son to keep the “negative dreck” at bay. This film is also candid about Rusty’s struggles with an ongoing drug addiction, the irony being that when Rocky’s bad days do happen, they trigger her to use again.

Director Peter Bogdanovich’s most prominent occupation is as a film historian. His voice is most commonly heard on many classic films’ commentary tracks, most notable is Citizen Kane and other works by Orson Welles. As a director he started out as part of the maverick decade of the 1970s. He seemingly came right out of the gate with the impressive trifecta of The Last Picture Show (1971), Paper Moon (1972) and What’s Up, Doc? (1973). The Last Picture Show, starring a young Jeff Bridges, is widely regarded as his masterpiece. It takes place in a small Texas town where desolate is the chief characteristic of every citizen folk of its population. It is also rich in its specificity of a community portrait full of individuals so conditioned to be aimless.

Cher was so moved by the real life struggles of those with Craniodiphyseal Dysplasia that she became the national spokesperson in the campaign to help treat the disorder – The Children’s Craniofacial Association.

The real lives of Rocky and Rusty Dennis were part of a biker gang. This gave Bogdanovich, with the help of screenwriter Annie Hamilton Phelan, the chance to bring that same sort of cultural world building to Mask. There is Red (western veteran Harry Carey, Jr.), the old fogey brimming with biker attitude, Dozer (Dennis Burkley), who is like Rocky’s older brother and mute by choice, and Gar, his surrogate father. Gar has an on-again/off-again partnership with Rusty and is played by the indistinguishable Sam Elliott. With the deepest, gravelly voice this side of a jar of molasses, this is arguably the film that gave birth to the Sam Elliott mystique.

This extended family is the type of which any one of its members would walk in front of traffic for Rocky. A key line of dialogue is spoken at a carnival as the matriarch watches them play in bumper cars… just “a bunch of men riding around in circles going nowhere”. Like The Last Picture Show, this is the motif that underscores almost every scene. Rocky is a smart kid with what would normally be a bright future. He has an overwhelming fan base cheering him on with love and support. This both highlights the vicarious admiration that his tribe has for him and the unavoidable conclusion that no one’s potential, including Rocky’s, will ever be met.

“With the deepest, gravelly voice this side of a jar of molasses, this is arguably the film that gave birth to the Sam Elliott mystique”.

If you have not experienced Mask as of this reading you are probably thinking this film is a bit of a downer. It is quite the opposite. This film is generous with inspiring moments. Rocky describes in the most creative of ways to his first love (Laura Dern in her first featured film role), who is blind, the feeling and significance of colors. We witness Rusty and Rocky share a sobering moment in front of a fun house mirror. Even an inappropriate midnight encounter under awkward and forced circumstances, born of Rusty’s desire to help him meet a girl, has a sweetness to it.

When revisiting this film, I chose to watch the director’s cut. It features two (2) additional scenes that further highlight the culture of this biker gang: one that gives Cher a chance to share her singing chops and the other that shows a point of reflection for Rocky when he attends a funeral.

The Director’s Cut of Mask features two scenes that were removed from the theatrical release which further highlight the biker culture that is a central backdrop for the film.

Peter Bogdanovich had always intended for the use of several songs by Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen gave full permission, but the film studio and music distribution company could not agree on a deal for its usage. So, in a quick turnaround, the music of Bob Seger was thrown in. In this director’s cut the music of Bruce Springsteen is used as originally intended. I had loved the use of Bob Seger’s music and hearing Bruce over key parts in this version was a bit jarring, but not compromising to the film. Out of loyalty to Bob and as a protest, I am currently writing this review as Alexa plays Seger’s greatest hits.

One thing that remains unchanged was Bogdanovich’s decision to give the cast of principal characters an encore. These sorts of endings have always seemed unnecessary to me, but I don’t mind that Bogdanovich did it here. Each character that receives their final bow is someone that showered love and support to Rocky. We should all feel so lucky to receive such an outpouring of kindness in our own lifetime.

⭐ For more information on where to Buy, Rent, or Stream Mask, click here for the Mask JustWatch page.

The official 1985 theatrical trailer for the Peter Bogdanovich film Mask starring Eric Stoltz, Cher and Sam Elliott.

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