Linda Manz, the narrator of Terrence Malick’s 1978 masterpiece Days of Heaven and star of Dennis Hopper’s raw domestic drama from 1980, Out of the Blue, has died at the age of 58, according to her family. While not exactly a household name, her performances have long been cherished by cinephiles and fellow actors for their originality and magnetism.
Manz, raised in Upper Manhattan (and who maintained a quintessentially Noo Yawk accent) somewhat fell into acting as a teen. As explained to Nick Pinkerton at The Village Voice in a 2011 interview, her mother, who was a cleaning woman at the World Trade Center, “had an idea of me being in movies—I never had an idea of me being in movies.” She went in for the Days of Heaven casting call and ended up with the plum role of Richard Gere’s kid sister in the gorgeously-lensed Texas panhandle period piece, co-starring with Sam Shepard and Brooke Adams.
Though remarkable to look at, Malick struggled to find cohesiveness while editing, and struck upon the idea to have Manz record a freestyle narration. “No script, nothing,” Manz recalled to the Voice. “I just watched the movie and rambled on . . . I dunno, they took whatever dialogue they liked.”
The humorous incongruity of a city kid offering commentary about Texas farmers in 1916 (and also weighing in on Bible tales and whatever else was buzzing in Manz’s mind) is the first and most hummable melody in this cinematic symphony.
Manz followed Days of Heaven with a very short-lived television sitcom Dorothy (starring Annie’s original Miss Hannigan, Dorothy Loudon), and a small role in Phillip Kaufman’s ode to Bronx greasers and gangs, The Wanderers. Manz plays Peewee, the shrimpy androgynous girlfriend to the enormous and baldheaded Terror. The role was written specifically for Manz, who dazzled Kaufman, writer Richard Price, and producer Scott Rudin at her audition.
That same year, 1979, she appeared in a curio called Boardwalk that starred Ruth Gordon and Lee Strasberg as an old married couple facing urban blight in Coney Island. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it “a movie of unrelieved, unexplored gloom.”