In 1976, Linda Manz was cast by Terrence Malick at the age of 15 to play the sister of Richard Gere’s on the run steelworker in Days of Heaven. Originally, her part was intended to be a smaller one, but like with many Malick films, he adjusted on the fly and continued to expand her role.
Describing any Malick film in a nutshell is to traffic in oversimplification, and Days of Heaven is no exception. On the surface, the film is a pre-Great Depression love triangle involving Gere, his girlfriend (played by Brooke Adams), and Sam Shepard. After Gere tussles with his steel mill foreman (resulting in the foreman’s death) he, Adams, and Manz escape Chicago to find work at a farm owned by the sickly Shepard in the Texas Panhandle. Gere and Adams hatch a plot to have Adams pose as Gere’s sister, win over Shepard, marry him, and then inherit the farm when he dies–which they assume will be soon. The plot eventually unravels when Shepard uncovers the intentions of Adams and Gere, a murder takes place, Gere goes on the run again, and more tragedy ensues.
It sounds like something out of a conventional film noir (the basic set-up is not so different from The Postman Always Rings Twice). But Malick never did go straight at a plot line, and Days of Heaven ended up becoming so much more than its basic description.
Known for being an incredibly difficult shoot, Malick spent nearly two years in the editing room trying to find the film’s structure. That’s when he came upon the idea to toss out most of the dialogue and tell the story largely in voice-over and images. Of the four main actors available to him (Gere, Shepherd, Adams, and Manz), Malick made the decision to use Manz as the film’s narrator–truly an inspired choice. Manz may not have been old enough to drive, but she had a grit in her voice, a plainspoken world-weariness, that belied her age. Always a wonderful visual director (the “plague of locusts” scene in Days is truly something to behold), when Malick married the rough-hewn beauty of the film’s cinematography to Manz’s bleak narration, the film crossed over into the realm of classic cinema.
But who was this young actor speaking for her visionary director? I don’t know that we ever found out. I imagine Manz wasn’t the easiest actor to cast in Hollywood. Her talent was obvious, but it was also very specific. From the sound of her thickly NYC accented voice to her diminutive (she was only 4′ 10″), androgynous appearance, there simply weren’t a lot of “fits” for her talent.
Manz had a small but significant role as Peewee, the girlfriend of a New York street gang member, in Philip Kaufman’s 1979 comedic drama The Wanderers. The film was a solid success with critics and audiences, serving as a springboard for the film’s lead, Ken Wahl. Manz received no such career boost from the film’s good fortune.
She did however get her first (and only) lead just one year later in the sadly overlooked 1980 near-classic indie, Out of the Blue. The production on the ultra low-budget family drama was troubled from the start. After the original director (the film’s screenwriter, Leonard Yakir) walked away from the movie, Dennis Hopper stepped in. It was Hopper’s first film behind the camera since his disastrous follow up to Easy Rider (1971’s The Last Movie). Hopper was just one year removed from his crazed, drug-addled work in Apocalypse Now, and one could have rightly feared the idea of Hopper directing a film while also under the pressure of playing a pivotal role in front of the camera.
Fortunately, in telling the story of a young punk-rock addicted teen (Manz) caught between her just-out-of-prison father and her junkie mother, Hopper managed to make a striking film that blurs the line between performance and reality. I would go as far as to say that Out of the Blue was The Florida Project of its day. Dialogue doesn’t come at you like it’s being spoken, it’s more as if you are eavesdropping on real people. Manz is at the center of the film, and, as great as she was in Days, she’s even better here. Her outward toughness masks a vulnerability that requires only the slightest squint to see. The posters that adorn her room, the guitar she can barely play, and her father’s leather jacket are all shields from a world outside that has little to offer her.
Her work is both heartbreaking and decidedly unsentimental. To call what she’s doing in the film “acting” seems almost reductive. She isn’t “performing,” she is just “being,” as if she were incapable of doing anything else.
Sadly, almost no one saw Out of the Blue, and just five years later she was out of acting altogether for more than a decade. She returned in 1997 with a small role in David Fincher’s The Game and a more sizable one in Harmony Korine’s Gummo.
And that was it.
The career of Linda Manz was so brief that it’s hard to truly contextualize it. She had significant appearances in just three films of consequence and one of those (Out of the Blue) was barely seen.
But for that very brief moment in time, Linda Manz was something original and true. No matter how short her stay in front of the camera, her gifts must be recognized. I hope people go back to Days of Heaven. I hope they discover Out of the Blue.
I hope they find Linda Manz.
Linda Manz died today, she was 58 years old.