Linda Manz (1961-2020)

by: , October 5, 2020

© Screenshot from Out of the Blue (1980) dir. Denis Hopper

‘Sometimes I feel very old like my whole life is old. Like I am not around no more’.

Linda, Days of Heaven (1978)

In one’s teenage girl body, senses are being uncovered and developed at a quickened pace; a seemingly unnatural acceleration in which a sense of self is clumsily cobbled together as skin and bones shift. With voice changing and body settling into a new form, incongruent to the emotional and intellectual upheaval of individuation and self-recognition, time is painful and stretches. Daily existence can feel like a lifetime, and existential revelations are unavoidable. Seldom can one even sync with so-called peers with the unarticulated passions and emotional dysregulation necessary to develop a singularity in a world of chaotic mass messages of normalcy. Bottom line, there is no other time in human development when observations can be so vivid and opinions so well-formed and yet fallible, while simultaneously desperately needing to be heard. One is becoming the most powerful and the most troubling character in society: a young woman. While others have succeeded in foregoing these years, by downplaying the severe discomfort of recognising the lived dissonance in shifting adolescent form, Linda Manz stepped fully into the misfit of being, and her memorable cinematic mark is fixed by performances that encapsulate the profundity of the understated.

On August 14, 2020, actor Linda Manz passed away at the age of 58 from lung cancer. Forty-three years after her central role in the acclaimed Days of Heaven (1978) and a year after a successfully crowdfunded 4K restoration and re-release of the visionary punk cult film, Out of the Blue (1980), whose festival screenings were cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, her son Michael Guthrie raised nearly $20,000, twice the amount requested, for the actor’s funeral. With over 460 donors donating nominal amounts, these contributions continue to come in, with fans expressing their love of Linda Manz’s enigmatic yet limited screen presence.

Manz’s filmography is short yet deeply impactful. Her roles were never initially meant to be main characters, but her presence within larger film narratives demanded many projects to refocus. The cinematic beauty of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven would have fallen short without the armature provided by the character of Linda. The film was criticised as being emotively limited, but it is through the improvised commentary that the viewer connects. Malick’s post-production choice to invite 15-year-old Manz to speak over the film gave a much-needed immediacy to the story. It is the non-judgemental words of the jaded young girl living through challenging times that allows us to see both the devil and angel within the story, and within the hypocrisy of human actions. In Out of the Blue, Dennis Hopper rescued the project by rightfully placing front and centre the self-destructive and nihilistic character of CeBe, a teenage delinquent left to her own devices. At the same time, her junkie mother (Sharon Farrell) and alcoholic ex-con father (Hopper) break down. Modelling her work after James Dean, Manz delivers her signature unselfconscious movements and speech in her captivating portrayal of CeBe. Embodying the punk gesture, the film depicts a girl transgressing society’s expectations through criminal acts and screaming into the void; her only way to claim a momentary existence in a world that demoralises and polices, or for that matter renders invisible, teenage girls, particularly those that fall outside of gender norms.

Linda Manz’s life was itself a genuine subversion of normality, perhaps as a homage to her prized role of CeBe. Manz saw herself in the character. In a 2014 interview with Rebecca Bengal for the New York Times, the actor stated: ‘I’ll always be that character … I’m just a tough little rebel. A survivor, I guess that’s what you’d call me.’ Growing up with a single mother, a cleaner at the World Trade Center, Manz often asked folks to adopt her. After being discovered, her natural talent grew in its fresh and original appeal. Her later choice to leave acting was not one of surrender, but rather one that embraced life’s seasonality. In interviews, her ease is apparent, remarking in a 1997 Time Out interview with Sheryl Farber, ‘[t]here 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.’ Through her portrayal of an adolescent girl as both working-class outsider and witness to civilisations’ discontents, Manz defied expectations by normalising her own joy post-celebrity. She was a proud and beloved mother and is survived by her husband, Robert Guthrie, two loving sons, and their three grandchildren.

From all the outsiders, misfits, and underdogs of the world: thank you, Linda Manz, for making us all feel a little less alone in this mess.

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