Remembering Linda Manz

On Film / The Daily — Aug 20, 2020
Linda Manz in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978)

If cancer and pneumonia hadn’t taken her last week, Linda Manz would be celebrating her fifty-ninth birthday today with her husband, her two sons, and three grandchildren. Though she would later appear in a smattering of films and television shows, Manz will always be remembered for two outstanding performances delivered at the outset of her erratic career. Of all the many voice-over narrations in the films of Terrence Malick, Manz’s in Days of Heaven (1978) is somehow both the earthiest and the most otherworldly. And in Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue (1980), she gave us a teen rebel like no other as Cebe, “pronounced ‘CB,’” as Rebecca Bengal pointed out in the New York Times in 2014, “as in the CB radio over which she broadcasts statements like ‘Kill all hippies!’ and ‘Subvert normality!’ in a tough, throaty voice.” Lecturing on the film in Antwerp last summer, Nick Pinkerton called Manz “one of the realest existential presences in American movies, then or ever.”

To begin with, that New York accent she brings to Days of Heaven is real. Manz was raised in Upper Manhattan by a single mother who worked as a cleaning woman at the World Trade Center. Talking to Yvonne Baby in 1979, Malick said Manz was “a sort of street child we had discovered in a laundromat,” but Manz had been attending Charlie Lowe’s Broadway Show Business School for Kids. Her mother had enrolled her. “I never had an idea of me being in movies,” she told Pinkerton in 2011 when he was still at the Village Voice.

She was fifteen when she was cast in Days of Heaven as Linda, the younger sister of Bill (Richard Gere), a migrant worker who arrives with his girlfriend (Brooke Adams) at the farm of a shy but rich man (Sam Shepard) in the Texas panhandle in 1916. Linda is “the heart of the film,” Malick told Baby. He spent more than two years looking for the movie at the editing table and found it only after he was struck with the idea to bring Manz in and have her improvise a narration. “No script, nothing, I just watched the movie and rambled on,” Manz told Pinkerton.

At one point, Malick prompted her to speak about heaven and hell, and here’s what she did with that: “There’s going to be creatures running every which way, some of them burnt, half their wings burning. People are going to be screaming and howling for help. They—the people that’s been good—they’re going to go to heaven and escape all that fire. But if you’ve been bad, God don’t even hear you. He don’t even hear you talking.” As Peter Labuza puts it on Twitter, nothing “can explain how or why Linda Manz’s voiceover in Days of Heaven is so moving. In a medium where we’re meant to focus on body and gesture, it is one of the greatest performances ever, and it’s all about the voice.” Malick told Baby that “Linda said so many things that I despaired being unable to keep them . . . I feel like I have not been able to grasp a fraction of who she really is.”

After Days of Heaven, Manz landed tiny roles in Frank Pierson’s King of the Gypsies (1978) and Stephen Verona’s Boardwalk (1979) and slightly more substantial ones in William Graham’s television movie Orphan Train (1979) and the short-lived sitcom Dorothy (1979). For Vanity Fair, Jordan Hoffman notes that in The Wanderers (1979), Phillip Kaufman’s “ode to Bronx greasers and gangs,” Manz plays Peewee, “the shrimpy androgynous girlfriend to the enormous and baldheaded Terror [Erland van Lidth]. The role was written specifically for Manz, who dazzled Kaufman, writer Richard Price, and producer Scott Rudin at her audition.”

As Cebe, the daughter of a waitress (Sharon Farrell) and a truck driver (Dennis Hopper) serving time for ramming into a school bus, Manz delivers in Out of the Blue “one of the great teenage performances of all time,” wrote Sheila O’Malley for Film Comment last year as a new restoration was set to premiere at the Venice Film Festival. “Manz has a tough and knowing presence, a scrappy street urchin with a New York accent straight out of a ’30s gangster movie or Mean Streets. She is in the glittering pantheon of 1970s tomboy teenagers . . . Manz seems completely un-studied, unable to lie or fake it.”

Odd jobs followed, perhaps none as odd as Mir reicht’s, ich steig aus (1983), a movie German director Gustav Ehmck shot in New Mexico with Manz in the lead as another rebellious daughter and an international cast that includes Ana Torrent (The Spirit of the Beehive). Reviewing the forgettable flop for Die Zeit in 1984, Krischan Koch noted that, starting with the screenplay, the film falls flat in every way a film can.

In 1997, Harmony Korine called Manz out of early retirement to play a tap-dancing mom in Gummo because she was “one the top five screen presences of all time—right up there with Lillian Gish and Gena Rowlands,” he told Rebecca Bengal. That same year, she took a small role in David Fincher’s The Game, and in 1999, an even smaller one in Mark Hanlon’s psychological thriller Buddy Boy. She reemerged from her quiet life once more in 2016 to talk about working with Dennis Hopper on Out of the Blue in Nick Ebeling’s documentary, Along for the Ride. “I’ll always be that character,” Manz told Bengal in 2014. “I’m just a tough little rebel. A survivor, I guess that’s what you’d call me.”

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