Mask is a cult classic. How could it not be? Combining the star power of three timeless faves — Cher, Sam Elliot, and Eric Stoltz — Peter Bogdonavich’s film tells a strange, sad, and hopeful story. Stoltz is nearly unrecognizable in the lead role of Rocky Dennis, a deformed teenage boy. And it’s all based on a true story.
Cutting his teeth on The Last Picture Show, the young director Peter Bogdonavich emerged as a top Hollywood auteur in 1971. And though he followed that classic up with What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moons — both hits — the rest of his career was… pretty random. Bouncing from high drama to a series of flops, Bogdonavich’s messy personal life began to overtake his artistic image.
Bogdonavich was a notorious womanizer. And in the late ’70s, he took up with the famous Playboy bunny Dorothy Stratten. She was with Bogdonavich when she won Playmate of the Year in 1980 — just before she was gruesomely murdered by her ex Paul Snider. Traumatized, Bogdonavich took a four-year hiatus from filmmaking. But he made a comeback in 1985 with Mask.
It was both a critical and commercial success.
Written by Anna Hamilton Phelan, the film follows the story of Roy L. Dennis, called Rocky. The upbeat teenager suffers from craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, a rare bone disorder that affects the appearance of his face. Eric Stoltz, covered in prosthetics, plays Rocky — recognizable only by his wild crop of red hair.
Rocky is raised by his mother Rusty, a loving but semi-dysfunctional motorcycle chick played so perfectly by Cher who stuns in all her leather get-ups. Over the course of the movie, she takes up with another biker, the ruggedly handsome Gar: the gruff and charming Sam Elliot. Laura Dern also appears Diana, a blind girl who becomes Rocky’s summer fling.
In part, Mask is a heartfelt family movie. But, like in real life, Rocky’s story turns to tragedy.
The Real Rocky Dennis
Roy L. Dennis, or Rocky Dennis, was born in 1961 to parents Florence “Rusty” Tullis and Roy Dennis. Roy, however, was not Rocky’s biological father. After all, Rusty was anything but traditional. She’d had her kid, Joshua, as a teenager and raised both her sons within a community of SoCal bikers.
When Rocky was two years old, X-rays revealed irregularities in skull and he was diagnosed with craniodiaphyseal dysplasia: a rare disease causes calcium to deposit all over his face. The condition, also called CCD and lionitis, would eventually cause Rocky’s face to grow to twice the normal size. Other complications included bad eyesight, bad hearing, and headaches caused by the intense pressure of his head. Doctors warned the family that, one day, the pressure would destroy Rocky’s brain.
Rather than have her child waste away in hospitals, though, Rusty insisted that Rocky live a more natural life. Against doctors’ orders, she placed him in public school. “They tried to say his intelligence was impaired, but it wasn’t true,” She told People. I think they wanted to keep him out of the classroom because [they thought] it would bother the other kids’ parents.”
Rocky excelled in school. And in many other ways, too, he was a typical kid. As Eric Stoltz portrayed him in Mask, the teen was smart, talkative, and always optimistic despite dire circumstances. It was that sunny attitude which so impressed screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan, who first crossed paths with the boy at UCLA’s Center for Genetic Research.
Sadly, Rocky died in 1978 at age 16. At the time, Rusty was dating a biker named Bernie Tullis, on whom Sam Elliot’s character Gar is based. He was something of a father figure to young Rocky and was devastated when the boy died. Soon after, he and Rusty married, but the union lasted just six weeks. Both parents were grieving over Rocky.
Then Joshua got sick too. By that point, Rusty’s older son was living in San Francisco as an out gay man and was diagnosed with AIDS during the early ’80s. To help pay for his treatment, Rusty decided to sell the rights to Rocky’s life story for $15,000. That’s when Phelan got involved, and Peter Bogdonavich signed on to direct.
During production, Rusty worried about how much attention was being put on her own role. After all, she said, it was Rocky’s story. But in the end, she was proud of Cher’s feisty portrayal. “Cher depicted the way I am very well,” the real Rusty said. “I always thought I was perfectly normal, that the rest of the world is nuts.”
And that opinion was unanimous. Mask premiered in 1985 and grossed more than $48 million on a small budget. Cher won that year’s Cannes Film Festival award for Best Actress and was nominated for an Oscar. So was Stoltz. The movie also won an Academy Award for Best Makeup.
But two years later, Joshua died of AIDS. He was 32 years old.
Reflecting on the loss, Rusty told People in 2001: “People say, ‘Oh, it’s too bad they died so young,’ [But] I say, you don’t understand. My kids lived every day of their lives. Every moment.” Though Joshua did not factor into Mask, that certainly seems true based on the picture painted of Rocky.
Rusty herself passed in 2006 at age 70. She died of an infection after being injured in a motorcycle accident.
According to The Lawton Constitution, Bernie died in 2020 at the age of 73 and is survived by a wife, seven children, and eight grandchildren. His obituary states: “He was preceded in death by his father, Richard and his son, Rocky.”