Subvert Normality: The Streetwise Voice of Linda Manz

Subvert Normality: The Streetwise Voice of Linda Manz

“Anyone with that kind of brilliance, you just give them space . . . She was a kind of unique, extraordinary, eccentric wild animal. And some jewels came out of her mouth.”

Richard Gere

On Halloween 1978, a month after the release of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, its youngest star, seventeen-year-old Linda Manz, snapped a plastic barrette in her hair and sat down with reporter Bobbie Wygant. In archival footage, Wygant, the Barbara Walters of Dallas–Fort Worth’s Channel 5, hair sprayed and set in a dark cloud surrounding her face, introduces their brief segment, “From New York Street Kid to Hollywood Star.” She marvels at the unknown actor who was cast over Tatum O’Neal largely because—as Wygant sums it up—Manz possessed the same qualities as the character Malick had in mind: “a young, uneducated, rough-hewn child from unfortunate circumstances.” But did the actor herself know why she’d been cast? Wygant asks.

Manz simply rolls with all this, much as she had in the making of Malick’s film. “Well, they think I’m a natural,” she tells Wygant, her precociously husky New-York-tough accent instantly finding a swaggering rhythm. “I was born in the streets, I grew up in the streets, and I know everything that’s going on in the streets.” You can picture her climbing up on a Texas Panhandle–bound boxcar, falling into her own opening narration from the film: “We used to roam the streets, looking for adventuhs.”

“So you were part of the streets?” Wygant says.

“Well,” Manz pauses, like an improv actor buying valuable seconds of time. “Kind of.” 

“You ever been busted?” Wygant ventures hopefully.

“Uh-uh. No. I always chicken outta those things. Like if the kids are gonna go rob something, I say, see you later.” 

And if she wasn’t in the movies?

“Probably I’d be in the streets or in a grave,” Manz says, breaking into a big smile. “Probably be murdered by those kids.”

Days of Heaven

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