Eric Stoltz did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a Golden Globe (absurdly for supporting actor), for portraying Roy "Rocky" Dennis in Mask.
Eric Stoltz has a bit of unfortunate notoriety attached with one of the most notable films of 1985, Back to the Future, where he was the original actor cast as Marty McFly, though not the original choice, to the point he shot several scenes, and can even still be scene very briefly in the film. Apparently not being quite right for the role, in that he was not Marty McFly as Michael J. Fox was, he was replaced by Fox which was fitting given that Fox was the original choice to begin with. Any chance at stardom seemed set to allude Stoltz by fate since he had another leading role in 1985 here in Mask, but the film's whole point setup Stoltz to be unrecognizable. Stoltz plays Rocky who is based on a real person who suffered from a condition that caused calcium to build up on his skull which caused his head to enlarge abnormally. Stoltz has a set challenge from beginning as he is always encased in this thick makeup throughout the film. This challenge is particularly important for the film itself given that Stoltz's work needs to overcome the makeup in a way, that makes him more than the makeup while still making it seem like a natural part of the character.
Stoltz accomplishes that with his performance as the makeup just seems part of him, and we only really see him as this kid with this condition. Stoltz never seems restricted by it as his eyes allow more than enough expression even as the rest of his face is set in place. Now the remarkable element of Rocky in the film is that this is not about someone living a different life through this condition, instead it is about him trying to live as normally as he can. This is set up well in an early scene where after a checkup the doctors tell Rocky he only has a few months to live, but both his mother and Rocky dismiss this given that they've heard this so many times before. That is not to say they are ignoring the idea, but rather not allowing it to control Rocky. Stoltz makes the decision to play Rocky as naturally as a he possibly can. He speaks with just the voice of an average teenager, he physically acts without mannerism. Stoltz makes the right decision as he shows firmly from the start that Rocky is just the same as anyone else except for some unneeded calcium on his skull. This is not to say that Rocky is completely unaffected by his condition, but this is not handled as one might expect.
The emphasis is on optimism for Rocky rather than any sort of pessimism. Stoltz's portrayal of this is remarkable as he is able to realize it in such a genuine fashion. Stoltz brings this energy of personality in Rocky that creates this certain charisma in him as someone who is willing to be anyone's friend. What I love about how Stoltz does this is that he does not portray this as effortless, but at the same time makes it completely honest. Stoltz subtly alludes to the recognition in these moments that Rocky knows its time to put on a bit of charm. He does not handle these moments with an ounce of cynicism though, instead portraying an understanding that this is what he must do to help others get over their reaction to his appearance. Stoltz makes Rocky actively likable in that he shows Rocky as someone who is always trying to win over someone best he can no matter what, given that if he did not do this he would be completely ostracized. Stoltz makes Rocky's success with the other teenagers convincing since he remains such a consistently endearing young man.
Although optimism defines Rocky much of the time Stoltz never allows Rocky to become one note, nor does he even allow the optimism itself to be simplistic. Stoltz is brilliant in the moments where he interacts with people who are seeing him for the first time because he does bring just a subtle hint of the discomfort in Rocky at seeing others initial revulsion to him. Stoltz portrays what Rocky himself must get over with his optimism by so effectively showing these vulnerabilities in Rocky. He portrays that most of the time he can override it through his upbeat personality, but it never is completely gone. Stoltz is especially strong in realizing the way these insecurities occasionally rise when something specifically occurs that reminds maybe a bit too much about his condition. Stoltz is terrific since he even keeps this moments fairly low key yet quite powerful. He shows so well the way it cuts deeply in him in this specific unease that seems ingrained unfortunately through his experience of life. Stoltz makes it so when there is the time for a more dramatic breakdown it not only is heartbreaking but completely earned in the moment.
Now two of the most important aspects to the film comes in Rocky's two most pivotal female relationships. A romantic one being with a blind girl Diana(Laura Dern). This is made to be just a very nice and altogether sweet relationship. It works though as they share the right chemistry, and Stoltz does well to show the way Rocky overcomes a natural shyness in regards to his appearance throughout their scenes together. The strongest aspect of the film though is in Rocky's other relationship, which is with his mother Rusty. The relationship is based in love as Cher and Stoltz both realize the needed genuine warmth between the two, as Rusty fights for Rocky to be treated normally with fierce dedication. The relationship though is more complex than that in large part due to Rusty's drug addiction and problematic lifestyle. Both Cher and Stoltz are fantastic in finding the depth in the relationship between the two as their moments of fighting are made raw and realistic. Stoltz does not sugar coat Rocky's disappointment in his mother's behavior, and by doing so he allows the tender moments to be all the more moving. One can see the history between the two in every moment they share together making the final scenes of the film rather devastating. Eric Stoltz gives an outstanding performance that is never defined by the makeup, as he successfully acts through it to give a complex portrait that makes Rocky so much more than just a boy with a tragic condition.