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'Mask' (1985): It Wasn't Lionitis That Killed Rocky Dennis

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Lee has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.

Mask is a 1985 biographical drama film starring Eric Stoltz and Cher as Rocky Dennis and his biker gang mother, Rusty. The movie is based on a real boy named Rocky Dennis who had lionitis and has become a beloved classic over the years.

I've loved this movie pretty much all my life. I always found it so inspiring that Rocky had this disease that disfigured his face and ostracized him, and yet he made the choice to stay positive, to be happy, and to live the best life he could. He never gave up on finding love, he never gave up on life. He chose to be happy instead of miserable about his circumstances.

I was watching the film again recently for old time's sake when it suddenly occurred to me that Rocky didn't actually die of lionitis.

Rocky died of a broken heart.

In the opening of the film, Rocky is given three to six months to live by a doctor who doesn't realize he's heard the same thing over and over for the past 16 years. The doctor is promptly chewed out by Rusty in a hilarious scene, only for the movie to have Rusty chew out Rocky's new principal in the very next scene.

It's established pretty early that Rocky lives in a perpetual cloud of doom and gloom, where everyone wants to treat him like he is less than or incapable, and his only shield against it is his fierce mother combined with his own determination to be happy.

I want to almost say that the doctor in the opening scene was correct. I think Rocky did die about six months later towards the end of the film. But I believe it was really because of his own personal anguish that he died. If you pay attention to the film, Rocky only gets terrible headaches when he's really upset.

It's almost as if his bad mood triggers the lionitis.

Rocky and his mother get in a terrible fight about her drug addiction, during which Rusty grabs one of his baseball cards and viciously rips it in half.

Rocky is terribly hurt, not because he lost a baseball card but because his mother—the one person he could always count on—did something terrible in a deliberate attempt to hurt him.

Soon after the argument, Rocky wakes up in the night with another one of his headaches and has to be consoled by his mother.

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Deciding he needs some space from his mother and her drug addiction, Rocky takes a job working at a summer camp for the blind. There he falls in love with a blind camp counselor, Diana Adams (Laura Dern).

Rocky teaches Diana what colors look like by having her feel hot rocks and cold ice. She falls in love with him, and all they can talk about is being together.

Diana's parents, however, are wary of Rocky. They think he is tricking their daughter and taking advantage of her because she is blind and can't see how deformed his face is.

In reality, Rocky was actually honest in that he allowed Diana to feel his face and really "see" how it looked.

Nonetheless, Diana's parents keep her from communicating with Rocky, which sends him into a depression, as he seems to believe Diana doesn't love him.

After the loss of Diana breaks his heart, Rocky finds himself alone at a new high school, where the kids bully him. Instead of responding with the usual wit and humor, he snaps on a boy and threatens to beat him up—showing just how far into depression he has slipped.

Later, Rocky's best friend, Ben (Lawrence Monoson), calls off their trip through Europe—something they had been planning for years. Ben wants to go home and get a job because he believes it's the only way he can survive. A furious Rocky yells at him, insults him, and kicks him out of his house.

The fact that Rocky was so cruel to Ben showed just how much losing Diana and all his school friends hurt him. I don't believe he would have treated his best friend like that otherwise.


Things become even worse when Red (Harry Carey Jr.), an older member of the biker gang, passes away. Rocky sinks deeper into a depression, having been faced with death and the reality that he might not live very long because of his condition.

Eventually, he takes a bus to see Diana and confronts her.


Rocky is relieved to discover that Diana still loves him and that it was her parents who were intercepting his calls. He tells her that he is actually having the worst time of his life, but somehow, knowing that Diana loves him makes it all worthwhile.

Diana says she wants to run away with Rocky, and he sadly tells her that they can not. If you pay close attention to the scene, you can see Rocky realizing that he'll never be normal or have a normal life like other people, that he's always going to struggle to find love and acceptance.

Surrounded as he was by the unconditional love of his biker family, the death of Red and the departure of Ben made Rocky realize that even they were not enough.

By the end of the film, a sad and defeated Rocky sits on the couch, silently combating the worst headache he's ever had in his life. His own sorrow has caused it, and for the first time, he can't will it away with happy thoughts. His biker family begs him to sing a song with his mother, but he slouches off to bed.

There even seems to be the implication that Rocky knows he's about to die, as he takes several minutes to say goodnight to both Rusty and Gar (Sam Elliott).

Rusty and Gar both seem to realize what's happening as well. They can be seen exchanging unhappy glances as Rocky wobbles tiredly off to bed. They both seem to sense that this is the last headache for Rocky.

Rusty finds her son the next morning, having died in his sleep. As the end scene shows Rusty standing over his gave, we can hear her remembering Rocky's poem, which she had been too busy to stop and listen to before,

These things are good:
ice cream and cake
a ride on a Harley,
seeing monkeys in the trees,
the rain on my tongue,
and the sun shining on my face.
These things are a drag:
dust in my hair,
holes in my shoes,
no money in my pocket,
and the sun shining on my face.

In essence, Rocky died of a broken heart. People treated him as if he wasn't even human, when it was his humanity that ultimately killed him.

© 2019 Lee

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