One of my favorite movies is the 1985 film Mask starring Cher as Florence “Rusty” Tullis and Eric Stoltz as Tullis’ son Rocky Dennis.
The top half of the photo that opens this post depicts Cher and Stoltz in their respective Mask roles and the bottom half is the real life Rocky Dennis and Rusty Tullis.
One of my problems with Hollywood is when they depict a true story on film, they often take so much dramatic license and embellish upon the real story so much that the movie produced is barely reflective of the true events the movie is based upon.
In other words, Mask should not be taken as an historical documentary on the life of Rocky Dennis and his mother Rusty, because it is not. At least not totally.
In fact, as much as I enjoyed the movie Mask, the real Rocky Dennis story is far more compelling. In comparing and contrasting the real story with the movie, I find the real story much more inspiring.
For those not familiar with Mask, I won’t dissuade you from watching the film. It is a good (but not great) movie with quality actors and is very much worth watching, so I will limit the spoilers by simply summarizing the real story. If you have seen the movie, you might come away wishing you got the full real story minus the embellishments instead of the movie depiction. The Rocky Dennis/Rusty Tullis story is a great lesson on life, so here goes…
Roy Lee “Rocky” Dennis was born on 4 December 1961 in Glendora, California. His father was Rusty Tullis’ second husband (she was thrice married and divorced), Roy Dennis.
Rocky was born with Craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, an extremely rare autosomal recessivebone disorder that causes calcium to build up in the skull, disfiguring the facial features and reducing life expectancy.
Without going into too much detail about Rocky’s condition, needless to say the disease distorted his facial features (the photo above speaks for itself), and so it is an understatement that Rocky faced a lot of challenges in his short life due to the way human nature tends to shun that which does not conform with the “norms of society”.
The inspiring and admirable aspect of Rocky and Rusty’s story is that Rusty, despite her substance abuse problem and her free-spirited nature, was an exceptional mother to an equally exceptional son.
Doctors said Rocky would be dead by age 7. He lived to age 16.
Doctors said his condition would adversely affect his vision and cognitive ability, but he was an exceptionally intelligent boy and a great student.
Despite debilitating headaches and the stares, jeers, and judgements leveled upon him and his mother by society, Rocky lived his life to the fullest and was a happy kid.
Rusty insisted that Rocky live as “normal” (I hate that word, but I use it within the context of this post) a life as possible and didn’t want Rocky to be treated as if he were different or handicapped by his condition.
Two stories documenting things Rusty Tullis said and did that reflected her spirit of perseverance that herself and Rocky lived are particularly poignant in my opinion:
When Rocky was 7, Tullis took him to Las Vegas. In the lobby of the Hacienda Resort Hotel, he spotted a female dwarf as she made her way through the tourists. As she walked by, Rocky began to giggle. “Now do you understand?” Tullis said. “Do you understand why people sometimes treat you the way they do?” Rocky, whose face already was twisted by disease, nodded. “Rocky,” his mother said, “everyone can look like anyone else, but no one can look like you. Take pride in that.”Rusty Tullis
In 1985, Tullis’ elder son, Joshua, became a writer based in San Francisco. A year later, he was diagnosed with Karposi’s sarcoma, a deadly skin cancer, as a result of AIDS. Joshua was homosexual and came out to his mother when he was a teenager. According to Joshua, “My mother has always been very supportive. She didn’t want to totally accept it. She wanted me to be bisexual. She wants grandkids. She called me once, a couple of years later. She wanted me to go to a sperm bank. She really wants grandkids. I told her, ‘No way!'” In 1987, Joshua died of AIDS at the age of 32. “People say, ‘Oh, it’s too bad they died so young,’ I say, you don’t understand. My kids lived every day of their lives. Every moment,” Tullis said of the experience of outliving her two childrenhttps://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Tullis
“My kids lived every day of their lives. Every moment”
“Everyone can look like anyone else, but no one can look like you. Take pride in that.”
I isolated two of Rusty Tullis’ quotes from the excerpts of the Wikipedia article about her above because the wisdom of her words resonate with me.
We spend so much of our lives living for other people or seeking external validation that we often fail to actually live life, much less live it to the fullest.
Rusty Tullis was not the most wholesome woman in the world for much of her life. She hung out with a motorcycle gang, spent a great deal of her life hooked on drugs (including when she was raising Rocky), and dropped out of school at age 15.
Despite all of that, she never felt sorry for herself, and to her credit, she never let Rocky feel sorry for himself either.
She conquered her drug demons to become a drug counselor and she had the courage to tell her and Rocky’s story to the world. Not for money (she was only paid $15,000 for the rights to her and Rocky’s story), but to offer empowerment and inspiration to other kids with disabilities and their parents.
In my opinion, Mask does not do a full service to the Rocky Dennis story in the way that it could have. However, I don’t think any movie could adequately depict the example of perseverance that is the Rocky Dennis story.
That said, the movie does get one thing right…
There is more courage in living your life by your own terms and living it fully despite the cards you are dealt than there is in conforming to the expectations of society.
Rocky died on 4 October 1978 . His mother Rusty died on 11 November 2006 at the age of 70 due to injuries sustained after she hit a curb and a utility pole riding her three-wheel motorcycle.
I’m sure neither Rocky or his mother left this Earth with regrets. THAT is the true takeaway from their inspirational story.
-The Rational Ram