A swaggering, compact wild-child with a fine-featured, scar-chipped face, Linda Manz was a kid star who wouldn’t get past security at Nickelodeon. With Dennis Hopper’s 1980 Out of the Blue beginning a week-long stand at Anthology Film Archives, New Yorkers can see her in her signature role.
Manz, raised on East 78th Street, today lives amid the orchards of California’s Antelope Valley, 49 years old, mother of three grown sons, two hours and a world from Hollywood (not to mention a lifetime—20 years—away from New York). Not much for phones, she took my call at a friend’s house. Her hostess even popped on the line: “I’ve seen the movies, they’re great! She was a helluva little actress!” I agree.
Manz disabuses me of the notion, easy to believe given her total veracity and lack of affect on-screen, that she was a latchkey prodigy who wandered onto a film set: “My mother had an idea of me being in movies—I never had an idea of me being in movies,” she says with a smoker’s laugh and still-strong Dead End Kid accent. “She was a cleaning woman—she worked at the Twin Towers. Yeah, she always put me in drama classes, she put me in dancing schools, talent classes, she put me in Charlie Lowe’s professional whatever-it-was. . . . I think Elliott Gould went there, too. They taught you how to sing, how to dance, how to improv . . . stuff like that.”
Manz was discovered during casting calls for Days of Heaven (1978), eventually playing Richard Gere’s little sister, “Linda,” in Terrence Malick’s Texas Panhandle–set period piece. When Malick couldn’t find his 70mm epic in the editing room, he had the crazy-brilliant idea to let his 15-year-old starlet lead the way: “This was later on: They took me into a voice recording studio,” remembers Manz. “No script, nothing, I just watched the movie and rambled on . . . I dunno, they took whatever dialogue they liked.” Laid over the images, these extemporaneous monologues abut God, the Devil, and some kid named Ding Dong (“I just made that up”) gave the movie its perspective—and a surreal humor Malick never matched.
Days led to roles in the cartoon Bronx of Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers, as a boxcar kid in TV’s Orphan Train, and then Out of the Blue, Hopper’s head-on collision with the brick wall of nihilist rebellion he’d been staring at his whole career. “I think I was Cebe,” says Manz of relating to her character, a punkette growing up in the blue-collar Northwest who goes out with a bang. Manz, however, faded away, never graduating from juvenile to ingénue—though the scene in Out of the Blue in which she confronts her father (played by Hopper) looking like a Balthus model makes you wonder, “What if?”
Of her early retirement: “I kinda got lost in the shuffle of being in the movies because I didn’t have an agent at the time and things were slow and . . . I dunno.” Though happy enough to recount her film career, the subjects that Manz today speaks about with the most enthusiasm are her first grandchild, three months old, and her recipe for clam bread (see below). She knows that Malick’s latest, The Tree of Life, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but hasn’t seen any of his movies since Days: “I’m not a movie buff, I don’t go to movies. . . . I haven’t been to a movie in 20 years.” (She’s been in a couple, however—playing the mother in 1997’s Gummo in a brief comeback—before withdrawing again.)
There’s a prophetic statement by the casting director who found Manz for Days in a 1979 Time profile: “I suspect that Linda wouldn’t feel bad if no more acting jobs come up.” And she really doesn’t seem to—but, oh, the difference to us.
IN HER OWN WORDS: LINDA MANZ’S CLAM BREAD RECIPE:
“Clam bread—this has everything. You take a loaf of French bread, and you hollow it out, and you save the pieces you take out and you cut ’em up like for dipping pieces. . . . And in a saucepan you put one cube of butter, two cubes of cream cheese . . . say two cloves of minced garlic, and you melt it until it’s smooth and creamy, and you pour that into the hollowed-out bread shell. You get two cans of minced clams—after you got it all stirred up, you drain the clams and you dump it into the mixture, stir it up, and then put it into the bread and bake it. Wrap it in tin foil, put it in the oven for like 15 minutes and heat it up—everyone’ll be wanting clam bread. I make it every time for Thanksgiving, Christmas, any holiday, and there’s none left at the end of the day. It’s gone. That and shrimp puffs.”