Then and Now: The Disappearance of Thora Birch
A look into why this Hollywood darling faded out of the spotlight.
Oh, the woes of the ill-fated child star.
Hollywood is notorious for burning out young actors and challenging what little sanity they have left. It's an industry that is full of naive up-and-comers who are discarded without the blink of an eye. Even those who manage to make a name for themselves are often destroyed by access to things that fuel self-destructive habits. River Phoneix, Judy Garland, and Heath Ledger are just a few names on a long list of people who were consumed by the drawbacks of their wealth and stardom.
Thora Birch's story, however, is not as clear. The actress was born and raised in Los Angeles to parents who starred in porn films, including 1972's Deep Throat. They named their daughter after Thor, the Norse god, and as a child star Thora's potential seemed mighty. She starred in fan favorites like Hocus Pocus and Now and Then, and was poised to become a major success.
But something went wrong along the way. She lost a supporting role in cult hit Election because she didn't agree with the director's vision and wasn't afraid to speak out about it. Later on, other factors like her father's bizarre behavior contributed to her personal reputation as an actress. Here's a look behind the Birch's unexpectedly bumpy journey from child star to indie darling to "hey, whatever happened to Thora Birch?"
The Delightful Beginning
It's safe to say that 1993's Hocus Pocus is a childhood favorite and a Halloween classic for most people. In the film, Birch stars as Dani―Max's endearing little sister who just wants to go trick-or-treating. Ever the enthusiast, little Dani helps her brother and his crush, Allison, get into loads of trouble during their adventures on All Hallow's Eve. The three of them spend a majority of the time trying to escape the haunting throes of the Sanderson Sisters, who are a trio of witches. The film also stars Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy.
On the Rise
The 1995 film Now and Then is a coming-of-age movie was a slumber party favorite for many '90s girls. It starred a slew of famous actresses, including Christina Ricci, Rosie O'Donnell, Melanie Griffith, Gaby Hoffman, Demi Moore, and Rita Wilson. The movie flashes back and forth between 1970 and 1991, centering on the friendship of four girls. Birch plays the younger version of Tina “Teeny” Tercell, while Griffith plays the older version. Now and Then was widely disregarded as trite and a lesser version of Stand by Me, but it remains a favorite of '90s girls everywhere.
A Steady Working Actress
Although Alaska (1996) was not a success, Birch landed the lead role in this action-adventure film about two siblings who navigate through the snowy wilderness to find their father after his plane goes down in a storm. Despite Birch's solid acting and the cute polar bear featured in the film, Alaska was pretty much a dud.
The First Sign of Trouble
When Birch was only 14, she was fired from Alexander Payne's film Election because of creative differences. She was originally cast as Tammy Metzler, Chris Klein's sister in the movie, but the role ultimately went to Jessica Campbell. Clearly, Birch still has a lot to say about that experience: “I read the script one way and it became clear that [Payne] had seen something else, so that was it. I just thought, this is ridiculous: why is it written this way?” Birch said in an interview with The Guardian. After losing out on the part, she took small one-episode roles on shows like Touched by an Angel (as seen above) and Promised Land.
A Major Breakthrough Moment
From interesting child star to blossoming teen, Birch branched out and took on more challenging acting roles. In American Beauty (1999), she plays Jane, the troubled and depressive daughter of Kevin Spacey's character, Lester Burnham. No one channeled teenage angst quite as well as Birch did in American Beauty. Jane really hates her parents and feels the profound loneliness of being trapped in a house with people who no longer recognize one another. The movie went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. Birch's performance in the movie was well received, although there was some minor controversy over her topless scene, given that she was 16 when production took place. However, her parents approved of the scene and were present during filming, along with child labor representatives.
Thora Birch Has Arrived
2001's Ghost World transitioned Birch from cute kid to delightful indie darling and earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. In the film she plays Enid, a rebellious, oddball teenager who defies conformity. Ghost World presents a major physical transformation for Birch and shows her sporting green hair, funky cat-eye glasses (before they became a hipster staple), and a perpetually pinched expression. While co-star Scarlett Johansson went on to become one of mainstream Hollywood's biggest stars, Birch seemed perfectly suited to the role of indie misfit, perhaps indicating that she'd never truly been comfortable as the up and coming It Girl movie star.
The Beginning of the Decline
It's difficult to say exactly what happened within the span of two years for Birch to go from starring in a movie like Ghost World to booking a role on a low-tier TV movie (Shadow Realm, 2002) and a one-episode stint on Night Visions. In 2003, Birch also appeared in the Lifetime movie Homeless to Harvard. Adapted from Liz Murray's autobiography, Breaking Night, the film tells the story of a young girl who comes from a dysfunctional family in the Bronx. Her mother is a schizophrenic and her father is a drug addict. After completing high school in two years, Liz wins an essay contest sponsored by The New York Times which ultimately earns her a scholarship to Harvard University. Despite the trite subject matter, Birch's performance was lauded and she was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie.
A Major Bump in the Road
In Winter of Frozen Dreams (2009), Birch plays Barbara Hoffman, a biochemistry student and prostitute who is convicted of murder. However, this independent true-crime drama gained more attention for the antics that went on during filming than for its content or Birch's acting. The New York Post reported that her father, Jack Birch, attended the taping of her sex scenes with Dean Winters and stirred up a lot of trouble. “It was so wrong,” an insider revealed of Jack Birch's behavior and claimed that he gave Winters a thumbs up during a sex scene with his daughter.
In 2010, Birch suffered another professional letdown when she was fired from the off-Broadway revival of Dracula. The actress was reported as being “in a state of shock” over her sudden dismissal from the theatrical production. Director Paul Alexander praised her acting abilities, but claimed that she was fired because her father threatened another actor on set. The claims were vehemently denied by Jack Birch, who also functioned as his daughter's manager and often attended her rehearsals to lend his support.
The verbal spat began after he witnessed an unnamed actor rubbing his daughter's back during a rehearsal scene. The actor attempted to explain that he was simply following instructions, but Jack Birch would not relent and began making physical threats. Alexander told The New York Times that Birch's father crossed a line when he threatened the actor and said: “Listen, man, I'm trying to make this easier on you ― don't touch her.” The director interpreted this statement as directly breaching the safety of his crew and actors.
Jack Birch later claimed that his reaction was a response to the discomfort felt by his daughter at the time, and that he never made any threats. The repercussions that came with her firing were shocking for Birch, who felt blindsided by the decision. In an interview with The Guardian, the actress spoke about this unfortunate experience. "I pissed a lot of people off over a long period of time and they found a way to upset me, hoping that upset would bring a change in my behaviour. Like a distancing … But I'm done, I'm done. People wanted me to be not fine. A lot of it was bullshit."
Unfortunately, this was just one instance in a series of career setbacks. In 2012, Birch produced a film called Petunia with her father. The film was given a very limited release and flopped. In the same interview with The Guardian, Birch stated that Petunia “got in, like, two cinemas.”
A New Start?
After a three year gap on her resume, Birch has finally booked her next acting gig. She'll play a software engineer named Morgan on the upcoming USA show Colony. The espionage drama stars Josh Holloway (Lost) and Sarah Wayne Callies (The Walking Dead), and has all the markings of a hit. The big budget series, which premieres this January, was heavily promoted during this year's Comic-Con.
Thora Birch has all the talent to make it as a star, but her career has been filled with ups and downs. Will she finally get back in the spotlight with this new role? We'll just have to keep an eye on her.