By Jim Jerome
Updated March 18, 1985 12:00 PM

The women eye each other from opposite corners of the star’s spacious Beverly Hills home. There is silence as Cher moves into the living room. Rusty stands, lights a cigarette. There’s an awkward pause. Then the women embrace. It is a moment that transforms them from total strangers into cinematic synonyms. They talk long into that night. They meet again shortly thereafter, exploring, searching for a way to re-create through the actor’s gifts a woman’s unconditional love for a disfigured son.

“She is tough but has an edge of softness about her. She laughs a lot. She’s soft-spoken and very warm, with a metaphysical side to her about finding her way through life. She is also quite a beautiful woman, even though, when she speaks, you hear those biker expressions.”

The words are Cher’s, describing Rusty Dennis, but through a stroke of brilliant casting the words unwittingly describe the offscreen Cher as well. Executives at Universal Pictures once pegged Jane Fonda for the part, but screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan wrote the Mask script with an 8″ x 10″ glossy of Cher beside her index cards. “She put it up next to a picture of Rocky and a poem he wrote his mother,” says Cher, “and told me the thing just kinda wrote itself.”

Insights into Rusty’s complex character proved less automatic. Cher and director Peter (The Last Picture Show) Bogdanovich were often at odds. The screaming and crying fits toned down, the actress says, once “he gave me some headroom to play Rusty the way I saw her.” For Cher, Rusty had become her unseen director. “Our personalities are similar,” the star explains. But Cher was never a self-destructive drug user like Rusty, though she understood the type: “I was married to a man like that—Gregory [Allman]. But there were three or four things I got from Rusty that made much of her story crystal clear.”

Cher insisted on dropping dialogue that rang false. One sentence had Rusty saying, “I could have been something if it hadn’t been for your stupid, ugly face.” Cher called Rusty on that and. the actress recalls, “she admitted she’d never have said it.”

Another sharp insight into Rusty’s remarkable power to see beyond her son’s deformity came one day when she showed Cher a picture of young Rocky, already badly disfigured. “That’s him,” Rusty told Cher, pointing to the photo, “the tallest one.”

Cher continued to resent Bogdanovich’s direction. “I felt Peter wanted to be doing my job but had to hire me. I never really understood Peter. I never listened to his direction because I never liked it. I didn’t feel he knew what Rusty was about as well as I did.”

Cher’s tense insistence on getting Rusty just right can be explained simply enough. She had the top-billed burden of carrying a tearjerker after two supporting roles. Sometimes it can seem she is still tentative about her place in filmmaking. After all, this beautiful but tough woman, like some tourist mentally changing dollars abroad, still converts her Hollywood paycheck into some private currency one might call casino-Krugerrands. “I’ve made three films for less than what I could do at Caesars for two weeks—$320,000 a week, two shows a night.” Of course, after years of high-sheen Vegas shtick, the only career gambles worth taking are demanding film parts. The challenge of Mask, for which she collected $500,000 and 5 percent of any profits, uncovered something new: fear. “I wanted to do the script from the moment I read it, but I was afraid I wasn’t good enough. There was tough stuff in there, but the thread of integrity throughout the film really made it worthwhile.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Cher says the nine-week shoot around L.A. was never grim or melancholic, thanks largely to Rusty. “She was never somber, absolutely never wistful about what we were doing,” says Cher. “She feels Rocky is still around, that he had such power and energy. She once told me she thought Rocky was in fact there on location with us, that he was cracking up at all the fuss over him. Everyone actually did have this feeling—and it really takes a lot for me to feel something strongly—that there was a higher presence around, an extra something that moved us.”

Mask’s leading role is the sort that would start any mother thinking of her own kids’ lives. Cher is lying back on a couch in a small but deliciously quaint rented beach house on the ocean in Malibu. The sun has set, two gas fires flicker in fireplaces and the high-ceilinged living room gradually warms as blue-gray natural light drains into the coming night. Squeezed between the pounding Pacific and the busy coast road, the house feels bounded by parallel tides, lunar and fuel-injected. If Cher’s life were a film, this moment would bring her an Oscar nomination for cinematography. She is solemn and pensive, at ease in the intensifying dark. She, the spokesbody for Jack La Lanne Health Spas, talks of feeling “sick to my stomach” at the shallow, unreal obsession for images of skin-deep physical perfection among American women. She admits she is “scared” when she ponders the growing up of Chastity, now 16 and studying in New York, and Elijah, 8, who spends weeks at a private school outside L.A. and returns home on weekends. “Maybe I could have done a better job,” she says. “I get frightened, then I’m around them and I see they’re really good kids. I see edges in their personalities I hope will round off, aspects they’ll grow through. I’m not so bowled over by my love for them that I don’t see their strong and weak points. But I feel they both have an innate strength that will pull them through—I see Chastity’s toughness coming from me and Elijah’s vulnerable, poetic spirit from Gregory. He was the gentler, nicer parent than me—when he was straight.”

If Cher, 38, can also state that “I wouldn’t mind being pregnant and would like to have one more child,” it may be her way of saying she has found the real thing in romance. It is barely six months old, but she and Joshua Donen, 29, VP for production at ABC Motion Pictures, have been all but inseparable since finding each other rude and aloof on a pair of early, awkward dates. When Donen comes through the door with Elijah, whom he has met at the bus from school, Cher’s energy level soars. The mood inside the house is immediately bright and animated. They are an openly affectionate pair. They met when Donen, son of renowned director Stanley (Singing in the Rain) Donen, was the agent of Cher’s ex-boyfriend Val Kilmer. Their initial contacts in groups of friends were hardly auspicious. She found him “rude, but so funny that no one got his jokes. I couldn’t understand why everyone liked him.” Donen set up a screening of an old film for Cher and a studio boss; there was talk that she might star in a remake. As the two men discussed the project, Cher withdrew behind a magazine and said zilch. “I was furious,” he now says. “She was antisocial. When she grunted as the boss left, I was livid. At dinner we weren’t speaking at all. Then she put down her fork and looked me in the eye. ‘I’m sorry you think I’m such a bitch,’ she said, and I realized that she’s just shy, afraid of people. That remark said to me, ‘I don’t mean to be the way I am, I don’t understand the way people perceive me.’ I was totally enamored of this woman for her frankness. She opened up her heart and just melted me.”

Why has it worked to perfection thus far? Josh says, “I don’t think Cher understands about getting up and going to the office. I’m the first man she’s ever been with who does that.” (He jokingly discounts record/film tycoon David Geffen because “he was so successful he didn’t have to go into his office. Other people went into his office for him.”) Donen, explains Cher, “has the best strengths of all the men I’ve been with.” She cites Geffen’s business aggression and intelligence, Allman’s sensitivity, Kilmer’s humor, and “he adores the kids like Gene Simmons, and he’s cute. Oh, and he’s crazy about me, like all of them.”

Donen’s alert eyes widen when he says, “I am lucky to have found one of the rare people. She is attractive, lively, intelligent, dynamic, funny, interesting, vulnerable, pained and happy. Falling in love with Cher has really connected me and the world, filled all the holes in my life.” The two have only been apart a week—over Valentine’s Day—when Cher went to Harvard to pick up the Hasty Pudding award as Woman of the Year. That day she braved a riotous mock parade through Cambridge, surrounded by draggedy-Ann members of the campy theater group. She held her own during a punning roast, threatening to use the three-pound brass pudding pot she received as an earring. On Valentine’s Day there were promotions in Manhattan for Mask but still time to send Josh balloons; he sent flowers to her hotel suite. Though no separation is on the schedule, Donen rolls his eyes and groans at the thought of a longer split. “You mean like a 16-week shoot in Tanganyika. I don’t wanna think about it. One week was hard, real hard.”

The pair spends nights out with industry friends, sees two, three movies a day. Mornings, Josh wakes up to read the seven to 10 scripts he must analyze each week. “Sometimes that kind of schedule,” she cracks, “is a pain in the—-and really infringes on my fun.” But their partnership has anchored her. “My career was deader than dung a few years ago,” she says. “This culture uses up and disposes. The best thing that ever happened to Marilyn Monroe’s career was she died. She couldn’t even get anyone on the phone when she died. That’s how crazy idolatry is. I’ve already been disposed of, so I want to bounce back. I’m like some of that trash that just won’t go away.” Playing Rusty Dennis has, she says, taught her to “look inside. There are so many women like me, women who get caught up in trying to look our best. You suddenly become, like I did once, the standard. And finally you look at yourself and say, ‘This is impossible. How the hell did I get here?’ ” For Cher, after years of restlessly “trying to create and re-create who you are above and beyond what you just are,” there is finally that long-sought contentment and confidence. Part of the solution, clearly, lay in her move to films, a career switch that has forced her, after two decades of flash, to remove her own mask.