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Cher: "This woman is unique"

Cher and Eric Stoltz in "Mask."

Malibu, California - Sometimes Cher feels like she's still fighting. First she played the feisty mother of a disfigured boy in "Mask," fighting for her son's right to go to regular schools and lead a fairly normal life. Now she's fighting for the movie's right to be judged on its own, despite the flak from director Peter Bogdanovich about changes made in the film.

Bogdanovich has made a series of angry statements over the past week in Los Angeles, attacking Universal Pictures for replacing Bruce Springsteen's music with Bob Seger's on the sound track of the movie and for removing a seven-minute scene in which mother and son sing a song together. Bogdanovich is so mad he's asked that his "possessory credit" be removed from the film. That means the title would no longer read "Peter Bogdanovich's Mask," although he still would be credited as the film's director.

Cher, following the controversy from a Malibu beach cottage she is borrowing from a friend, said she has "a very hard time" understanding Bogdanovich's motives.

"What's the big deal about his credit?" she was asking last Monday morning, after the movie had opened to great reviews in New York and Los Angeles. "Peter shouldn't have possessory credit. It's not his picture. He didn't write it. He didn't discover the story. He had a lot to do with the film, but so did a lot of other people. I have a very hard time with Peter. If I were him, I would be so grateful and so happy."

In the movie, she plays a woman named Rusty Dennis, who rides with a motorcycle club and abuses drugs, but has nothing but love and support for her 14-year-old son, Rocky. The boy has a rare disease named craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, which causes excess deposits of calcium on his skull, distorts his features and enlarges his face to twice its normal size.

The performance is a personal triumph for Cher, and for young actor Eric Stoltz, whose own face is invisible (except for the eyes) beneath the remarkably convincing makeup of Michael Westmore and Zoltan.

After reaching a point in her singing career where she was, in her own words, "going absolutely nowhere," Cher has burst forth in the last three years with three brilliant dramatic performances: in Robert Altman's "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," both on stage and film; in Mike Nichols' "Silkwood," where she won an Oscar nomination as Meryl Streep's roommate, and now in "Mask," where for the first time she carries a film's lead and is largely responsible for its emotional impact.

Now, she said, she is promoting the film more enthusiastically than any other project in her career, because she doesn't want the good things about "Mask" to be obscured by Bogdanovich's attacks. Her position is shared by many other people in Hollywood; a Los Angeles Times article observed last week that the movie industry views Bogdanovich's 11th-hour charges as a self-destructive attempt to sabotage his own comeback after a string of box-office flops, including "At Long Last Love," "Nickelodeon" and "They All Laughed."

"Sure, I'd rather we had the Springsteen music in the film," Cher told me. "I'd like it better that way. Rocky Dennis loved Springsteen, and we were playing it all through the filming. But this is not a musical, so it doesn't make a crucial difference one way or the other. And as for the one scene that they took out of his version, when this movie was finished, it ran more than three hours. A lot of important scenes are gone. I cried and cried when I saw the final cut; some of my own best work was missing. But I'm not cutting my wrists over it."

She spoke in a calm, comfortable voice. Wearing her two-tone hair in a short, punky cut covered with a bandanna, Cher was curled up on a sofa overlooking the Pacific. Her 8-year-old son Elijah walked into the room, his finger marking his place in Jack London's White Fang, and asked if he could have some French bread.

"Yes, but you can't have some right now," she said. Elijah said he thought he'd have some herbal tea. Cher said that would be fine.

"Can I put some honey in it?"

"Yes. You know where it is?"

"Yeah, I think so."

A second later, there was a mysterious sound from the kitchen. "Elijah?" Cher said. "What was that noise just then?"

"I was getting some ice to cool off my tea and a little bit fell on the floor," he said.

"All right."

This competent, motherly side of Cher is one you wouldn't associate with the glitter queen of '60s and '70s rock and TV. But she draws on it in "Mask" to create a perfectly convincing mother. The sequined dazzler with the gown cut down to her navel is completely missing in all three of Cher's recent film roles, and she likes it that way.

"That other side of me is still inside of me, and I'm still comfortable with it," she said. "But I had to give it up, quit singing and touring, if I wanted to get anywhere as an actor. People can only take one side of you at a time, I guess."

She wondered aloud whether she would ever have been taken seriously as an actress if it hadn't been for Robert Altman, who cast her in the Broadway production of "Jimmy Dean" because of a freak telephone call.

"I had gone to New York to study acting," Cher remembered. "I had tried and tried, and nothing happened, and nothing happened. They couldn't see beyond my singing. They assumed I had absolutely no talent." She laughed. "You don't know the half of it. Anyway, I had an appointment with Joe Papp, and my mother called to see how I had done. She accidentally dialed Altman's number instead of mine. My mom and Altman's wife are old friends. Altman was asleep when the phone rang, and he was kind of angry: 'Cher? What in God's name would she be doing here?' Then when he figured out it was my mother, he asked her to send me around for a play he was auditioning. I called him up and said I didn't have a Texas accent inside my head at the moment, and I wasn't good at readings, and a lot of other excuses, and he told me to come over, anyway. Sandy Dennis was there. She told me later I gave the worst reading she had ever heard. But Bob thought I could do the job. Once I could throwaway the script and act, I found that I could do it, and enjoy it."

Then came the movie version of "Jimmy Dean," followed by the key role in "Silkwood."

"That was an easy decision for me. Mike Nichols said, 'Do you want to make a movie with Meryl Streep and myself?' I said yes. He said, 'Do you want to know what the part's about?' I said no. I just wanted to work with them."

But "Silkwood" hadn't been released when Universal began casting for "Mask," and at first, she said, the studio was against the idea of using her in the role.

"They just didn't think I could do it. Also, the characters are very different. In 'Silkwood' I was kind of timid, really. In 'Mask' I'm pretty large and sexy and self-confident."

Working on the set with Bogdanovich, she said, was not always a good experience for her. "We had different ideas of how the character should be played. I never did really understand what he wanted. I didn't listen to him. I played the character exactly the way I wanted to. No wonder he was sometimes pissed off at me."

One of the strange things about "Mask," Cher said, was the uncanny sense that the real Rocky Dennis was present in spirit during the shooting.

"Eric Stoltz, who played Rocky, never allowed himself to be seen by anyone on the set without wearing his Rocky makeup - the mask. There are people on that picture who still don't know how Eric really looks. And the spirit of that little kid permeated everything. I think it goes all the way back to the original screenplay."

Cher said the screenplay was a first writing effort by Anna Hamilton Phelan, who met the real Rocky Dennis by chance one day at the UCLA medical center. Struck by the boy's open and positive, approach to his handicap, Phelan eventually tracked down the real Rusty Dennis, who, in her mid-40s, was still a biker, but had quit her life as a drug dealer, cleaned up her act, and was working with Narcotics Anonymous.

As she wrote her screenplay, Phelan had three things tacked above her typewriter: a photo of Rocky, a poem Rocky had written and a photo of Cher, who she thought would be right for the role.

Cher said she thinks Phelan's original screenplay would have made a 3 ½-hour movie, and she still doesn't understand why it wasn't condensed before shooting; instead, three hours of scenes were shot, and an hour was cut from the film during the post-production process.

That left a few gaps. For example, some critics have complained that the film never explains how Cher's character supports herself. "The real Rusty Dennis supported herself as a drug dealer and as a vitamin salesperson," Cher said, "When Rusty saw the film, she was offended by the scenes where she buys drugs. She told me, 'I never bought drugs in my life. I sold drugs.' It was a matter of pride with her. This woman, let me tell you, is unique."

So, I was thinking, is Cher. Although she could probably command hundreds of thousands of dollars a week as a concert performer, she has consciously chosen to go this more difficult route, and in three movies has forced Hollywood to take her seriously as a dramatic actress. And still, even today, she doesn't have another movie lined up.

"I haven't got a job," she said. "I didn't have a job last year, before 'Mask.' I need the money. There's not very much money in this particular career. But I'm not going to do a movie I don't think is right for me. With the first two movies, I thought, when you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose. Nobody out here thought I was talented. Now, maybe I'm getting somewhere." She laughed. "And now the trouble is, just as I break in, I'm getting too old. [She is 38.] All the movies are about teenagers. The funny thing is, I like the same movies my kids like. I think maybe anybody who was around in the 1960s still has a little pixie dust in their hair. My daughter asked me, 'Mom, were you around in the 1960s?' I said, 'Yes, honey, I most certainly was.' She wanted to know if I painted my body and wore love beads. I told her I was right in there.

"And I still am. I'm pushing this movie as hard as I can, because I think it's got a lot of good things in it, and it's worth seeing. It's about loving your kid, instead of all these TV movies about missing kids and abused kids. There are some perfect scenes in it, like in the classroom, when Rocky tells the story of the Trojan War, or when the blind girl touches his face and says she thinks he's beautiful."

She paused. Her voice, when she spoke again, was just a little less calm. "What I really resent about Peter Bogdanovich's position," she said, "is that he thinks only of his picture, and his final cut. What about the work all the rest of us did? He tried to enlist everybody to turn their backs on the film and walk away from it. And I told Eric Stoltz: 'While Peter's trying to get his stupid scene back in, and getting us to turn our backs on this movie, it's gonna come and go, Eric. It's gonna come and go. And a story this beautiful doesn't come along all that often.'"

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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