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Rusty and Rocky Dennis

posted by Paul on 11/08/01

If anyone was to ask me what I enjoy most about the movie "Mask", I'll normally talk about the multitude of ridiculous scenes and pointed dialogue: Rocky riding around in a bumper car, Rocky scaring people, the hilarious frolics at the carnival. The movie is so multi-faceted that, for by reckoning, there's one classic moment in every frame - maybe even more than that. But what really distinguishes "Mask" is its characters and the interaction between them - the way you can just detect the admiration Gar feels for Rusty and how protective Rocky and Dozer feel about each other's personal failings in the light of social mockery.

There are moments in "Mask" that will leave you absolutely amazed, but if I was to give you an honest answer about the greatest aspect of the movie, the answer is simple: it's the relationship between Rocky and his mother, Rusty. Never before have I seen the mother-son bond so well represented on screen. I'm not sure how much of this "real life" story is representative of the truth. There was a real Rocky Dennis and, I presume, a real Rusty, but since movies have a tendency to embellish/sentimentalize events, who's to know how accurate "Mask" is? What I do know is that it can't be easy going through nine months of labor and having to squeeze Rocky Dennis out of your womb. That is only matched in difficulty by watching him and his head grow to distressing levels and everyone who eyes him growing scared.

"Mom, come to think of it, you don't really see many lions that look like me. That's a pretty fucked up comparison, no?"

Imagine that you had a son. You'd naturally want that son to be all the superlatives in the world. In most cases, a mother's love is unconditional, but if we're really honest, we might as well admit we'd prefer our kids to be attractive, intelligent and interesting. These are the desirable traits for our offspring. Sometimes, however, that doesn't always materialize; maybe our kids won't be too attractive, bright or intriguing. We'll still love them. The love that Rusty has for Rocky by-passes all that. She not only loves her son, she wants to convince the rest of the world to love him. And when your son has a gargantuan acne head, that's a pretty lofty expectation.

The way Rusty feels for Rocky is pretty clear from the outset. At the beginning of the movie, one of her (we can only conclude) numerous one-night stands sees Rocky, is naturally repulsed and asks "Jesus, who's that?". Any regular mother would turn disapprovingly or try to play down her kinship, but Rusty just says "That's my son". It's as though she has absolutely no notion why this guy would be alarmed at her son's appearance. Just before the guy sees Rocky, we see Rocky glimpsing out the window, realizing his Mom has been with yet another low-life and *smiling*. How many kids would smile at their mother's lack of sexual dignity? There's a mutual acceptance going on here; each of these characters know the other is far from perfect, but their love rises above that and they're willing to live with the faults.

I think I should go now.... Call me!

Unlike the majority of people, Rusty doesn't treat Rocky like a freak. In fact, judging by her words and actions, she can't understand why anyone would see him as anything other than an intelligent, generous young man. When she marches into Mr Simms' office, she is determined that Rocky will be admitted into the school and treated as a regular citizen. On the way up the corridor, noticing the shocked stares of the other students, she quips "What's the matter? Haven't you seen anyone from the planet Vultron before?". To the casual viewer, it may seem that she's making light of her son's condition. On the contrary: she's just showing how irrelevant it is, suggesting that if you can look beyond his disfigurment, you'll see a regular kid.

Getting Rocky into the school shows the strength of Rusty's character. When your day consists of popping pills, bedding bikers and deluding yourself your ugly son is going to "make himself well", you'd think trying to legitimize him would be fairly low on your priority list. Rusty knows that she could get Rocky into a disabled school, and that it would be easier for him, but she also knows that her son is smart and deserves to attend a regular school. She sees no reason why he should be downgraded, and she's right. No sooner is Rocky in the school than he's memorizing locker combinations, reciting history anecdotes in class and charging his class-mates a ridiculous three bucks an hour for Algebra tutoring. I think that if given a choice between failing Algebra and getting Rocky Dennis to tutor me, I'd gladly flunk the whole subject - especially since the greedy asshole is only taking my money to buy another Rube Walker trading card.

The big revelation in the whole movie is that Rusty called "Roy L" Rocky, because he used to rock back and forth in his crib. Surprising, really, because I'd presumed the reason for the name was that it described perfectly the structure of his face. There's a great scene when Rocky, all lusty, asks his Mom what she'd think of him if she was a girl (as opposed to someone who used to share a bed with Sonny Bono). Rather than going for the cheap "brutal, horrifying, dorky, generally worthless" jibe, she simply remarks "I think guys with red hair are cute". It's quite possibly the best way of tackling the question straight on. Kind of like being asked "Do you like homo-erotica?" and answering "I wear sleeveless T-Shirts". Rocky asks about the possibility of seeing another plastic surgeon (the other ten presumably having hanged themselves), but Rusty tries to change the subject of her son's hideous visage. He snaps "Don't you understand anything, Mom? It's Girls!"

Now, just step back from reality here a second. If Rocky was your son, and he just said this, what would you do?

a) Take it as the angry outburst of an ugly, hormonal teenager with too much calcium in his skull and go about your day.

b) Try to assure him that true beauty is on the inside and he should just continue collecting his stupid baseball cards.

c) Go hire him a hooker.

If you chose c), you've obviously seen the movie, but then if you've seen the movie, you know that it's probably the least sensible decision anyone could have taken. You see, Rusty took Rocky's little hissy fit as the sign that he needed to get laid. As any responsible mother would do, she went and paid a stranger to sleep with him. In Rusty's twisted logic, this was a wonderful gift, but then she ignored the fact that her son had such a horrible sense of self-awareness that he actively spoke up in class and believed that a little plastic surgery might improve his chances with girls. Rocky, rather than being thankful to his Mom, flipped out and accused her of doubting his chances with girls.

"Hello, Obviousness, say hi to Rocky Dennis, your new biggest fan!"

The hooker misunderstanding reveals the dynamic of the Rocky-Rusty relationship: she wants to be the only woman in his life. The scene at the breakfast table shows a very jealous Rusty, angry that her son is enjoying the company of another female. Indeed, that would explain about 90% of her behavior in the movie. She doesn't want him to get plastic surgery or to look better because she wants him and his responsible nature all to her sweet self. Who else is going to tell her to quit drugs and break her plates? Think of it this way: she'll not even think twice about paying a woman to sleep with her son, but she'll happily let him walk the earth for sixteen years looking like some second-rate Frankenstein. I mean, at the very least she could have bought the kid some Clearasil or ensured that his dental hygiene approached "atrocious". Christ, his hair-style is a fucking sin against humanity.

"Show us those pearly whites! No, put those false teeth away. I'm sorry. I really did think they were false teeth."

While Rusty is intent on smoothing her son's ego, he's determined that she get herself clean. It's a fair emotional trade; he doesn't want her to die, and she wants him to lead as normal a life as possible before his head really does get too big. There's a definite shame attached to this - she wants to be the one in control and openly resents the fact that Rocky is the mature one. After leaving about thirty drug rehab leaflets around the house, Rocky can't be too stunned that Rusty will be less than happy with his meddling. Things get heated. And when Rocky shouts "All you wanna do is get wasted and laid", he gets a slap across his big lion face. He had it coming, too. The scene really proves that his love for Rusty takes a backseat to something else. Yeah, his concern and maturity suddenly vanishes whenever Rusty rips up one of his valuable baseball cards. "How could you do that? I hate you", he cries. Eh? Well, it's like this: you can mock the kid's looks all day and you'll get a shy smile, but hell hath no fury like a Rocky Dennis whose cards have been tampered with.

At the school, when Rocky is collecting all his awards, you can feel the pride beaming from Rusty. To her, it's a vindication - for her and for Rocky. It's very much like the "Rocky" legend: the guy who seemed least likely actually coming out on top. Difference is, this Rocky only collecting a few meaningless class awards and was voted "friendliest camper". I think it's a little easier to be friendly to the blind than those who can see you and will ridicule you endlessly. Plus, looking like Rocky and being voted "friendliest" is like being a Britney fan and being voted "omg so cute" - it doesn't take away your million other issues.

"And the winner of ugliest guy in the school's history...Rocky Dennis" "Way to go, Rocky!"

But the bottom line is that Rusty truly loves her son. When he's driving the bumper cars, she stands back, smiling and proud. She doesn't see a freak who looks ridiculous as he bumps about. No, she sees a boy in the prime of his life- having fun. And she loves him so much, she even tries to kick her habits. This proves harder than she expected, what with carnival-based drug dealers hanging around. In fact, at the carnival, we see how little Rusty is swayed by her son's looks. The famous "mirror scene". Now, this scene is notorious for producing the opposite effect it was aiming for - the typical reaction being that the guy in the mirror might actually be scarier than the freak looking into it.

"Rocky, you could look into a spoon and you'd still be ugly. Your father was Danny Bonaduce. Ok, I'm tired of this.."

I'm not sure which one is scarier, but I don't think you'd like to take either home to daddy. All mocking aside, the image leaves both to ponder. Rocky looks wishful and sad, while Rusty only looks concerned for him and sorry that she really can't help. In the same way she couldn't help when Diana's parents scuppered his relationship, or when Ben bailed on him. You can see that she doesn't care about his looks, and she loves him for him. It's the same sort of altruism he feels for her. He wants her to be with Gar, the cool cat father figure he always wanted. And he wants her to find happiness away from drugs.

It's a touching connection of two souls who don't seem ready for this cruel world, for altogether different reasons. Both lonely, both sad bit with enough redeeming qualities to shine in the end. Rusty couldn't quite make Rocky better, but she afforded him a normal life and her feistiness eased his pain.

And when the end comes, it's Rusty who's smiling. Because she knows her son made a difference. And that she, in turn, made a difference.

AOL IM: paulwdfans

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