Linda Manz, who has died from pneumonia and lung cancer aged 58, had a career, if it can even be described as such, that was the antithesis of Hollywood stardom. She appeared in only a handful of films, never became a celebrity or won awards for her acting and retreated from public view in her early 20s to raise a family amid the orchards of Antelope Valley in California.
“She did three movies and all of them are masterpieces, except for The Wanderers,” the actor Chloë Sevigny said last year. “Now she lives in a trailer park with three or four kids, I think. But I’d rather do that than do 10 movies and make millions of dollars and have them all be trashy films.”
The masterpieces in question are Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) and Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue (1980). In both, she mesmerises with her singular presence, her instinctive ability to totally inhabit her characters. Days of Heaven was her on-screen debut and it is her voice that you hear throughout as her character, a 10-year-old also called Linda, which adds another layer of mystery to a tangled story of love, deception and survival set amid the wheat fields of the Texas panhandle in 1916.
Days of Heaven is one of the most visually beautiful films ever made courtesy of cinematographers Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, but it is through Manz’s eyes that the story unfolds, and it is her imaginative voice that informs – and fractures – our understanding of it. She is not so much a narrator as someone trying to recall, and make sense of, the events of a tumultuous and wondrous time.
“Me and my brother. It just used to be me and my brother,” she begins, immediately setting the tone of childlike wonder, acceptance and stoical regret. “We used to do things together. We used to have fun. We used to roam the streets. There was people sufferin’ of pain and hunger. Some people their tongues were hangin’ outta their mouth.”
Manz was only 15 when she made the film and, amid the more famous faces on screen – Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard – it is her presence that intrigues, with its innocence, alertness and already hard-won experience. “Sometimes I feel very old,” she mused at one point, “like my whole life’s over. Like I’m not around no more.” One senses that she was speaking from experience.
Raised in New York by a single mother who worked as a cleaner, Manz had a troubled childhood, running away from home frequently and attending several schools. At her mother’s insistence, she enrolled at a showbiz academy that taught acting and dancing, and there a teacher told her that the casting director Barbara Claman was looking for streetwise kids to appear in a Hollywood film. Claman recalled that Manz turned up unannounced at her office the following day, “smoking and looking all of 10 years old, but she had that special quality we wanted”.
In 1979, in a rare interview, Malick described Manz as “the heart of the film”, noting that she was a child who possessed “the maturity of a 40-year-old woman”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, she was a rebel who, according to the director, “couldn’t remember her lines, couldn’t be interrupted and was difficult to photograph”.
On screen, she was a child unmoored in an adult world of uncertainty, bringing a vulnerability and fierce independence to the role. It was Malick’s inspired idea to let her do the voiceover, allowing the story to unfold from a child’s fractured but poetic point of view. Unbelievably, it was entirely improvised as she watched a rough cut of the film. “They took me into a voice-recording studio,” she recalled years later. “No script, nothing, I just watched the movie and rambled on …”
She immediately took control, seemingly undaunted by the responsibility. “Every time I gave her new lines, she interpreted it in her own way,” Malick remembered. “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.”
Two years later, in Out of the Blue, Manz played Cebe, a troubled Elvis-obsessed teenager with a punk attitude that masks her extreme vulnerability. Here, the adult world is an even more uncertain and threatening place, with a volatile Dennis Hopper playing her violent father, an ex-convict, who trails havoc. Like Malick, Hopper sensed Manz’s instinctive acting ability, rewriting the script to make Cebe the central character – an outsider with a nihilistic punk attitude.
In 2014, Manz told an interviewer that she had based her acting style in Out of the Blue on James Dean: “He was it for me.” When asked how much of herself she brought to the role, she answered: “A hundred per cent! In all my movies, I’m just being myself.” It turned out, too, that Cebe was the role she was most proud of. “I’ll always be that character,” she said. “I’m just a tough little rebel. A survivor, I guess that’s what you’d call me.”
Described by the maverick film-maker Harmony Korine as “the best teen-girl role”, Out of the Blue was also Manz’s swan song. She seemed to disappear from view without anyone taking much notice. In 1997, she told Time Out: “There was a whole bunch of new young actors out there, and I was kind of getting lost in the shuffle, so I laid back and had three kids. Now I enjoy just staying home and cooking soup.”
It was Korine who convinced her to return to the screen after a 16-year absence, seeking her out to play a fast-talking, tap-dancing mother in his controversial directorial debut Gummo. “There was this sense about her that I liked – it wasn’t even acting,” he said. “It was like the way I felt about Buster Keaton when I first saw him. There was a kind of poetry about her, a glow. They both burnt off the screen.”
By then, Manz was happily married and living in seclusion in California with her husband, Bobby Guthrie, a camera operator, and their sons, Michael, Christopher and William. “She had to return my calls from a Texaco station,” claimed Korine. When curious journalists tracked her down there, as they did from time to time, she seemed blithely uninterested in the Hollywood lifestyle she had left behind. Nor was she aware of her own cult status and how it had grown in her absence. Instead, she happily shared her recipe for clam bread.
In a People magazine profile written a few weeks before her 18th birthday, Manz told the reporter: “Acting’s in my blood. I hope it lasts for ever.” That did not turn out to be the case. For a short time, though, no one shone brighter and those early performances stand as testimony to her instinctive acting ability, her authenticity and, above all, her free spirit.