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Whatever Happened To Thora Birch From Hocus Pocus?

Thora Birch means different things to different generations. 

If you were an '80s or '90s kid, you probably think of Birch as a child star, and, later, as a promising up-and-comer known for playing snarky, angst-ridden teens in American Beauty (1999) and Ghost World (2001). If you were born after the '90s, you probably recognize Thora Birch as the subject of many "Where are they now?" articles. Seriously — we folks in the media have been writing "Where is she now?" articles about Thora Birch for about as long as her Hollywood heyday lasted. Pop culture journalists love reminding everyone where Thora Birch is. 

The Guardian printed one of the better writeups on the "Where is Thora Birch?" genre in 2016; in that interview, Birch hardly sounds bitter about her reduced degree of celebrity. Falling short of the heights reached by her Ghost World costar Scarlett Johansson isn't even close to a worst-case scenario for Birch, as tragic forces have claimed many under-30 would-be movie stars over the years.   

"I'm not going to sit here and act like everything's glorious and wonderful...Even though I do kinda feel like that," she told the paper. "Like with my life? I'm really lucky! I'm just cognizant that I wanna move forward, and people will let me or not, who knows." 

Ironically, Birch's career is usually more active and forward-looking than her press would have you believe. Here's a closer look at what Thora Birch has been up to.  

She was a child and teen star

The daughter of former adult film actors Jack Birch and Carol Connors, Thora Birch got her start in commercials for wholesome products like oatmeal. She snagged her first film role in Purple People Eater (1988) — alongside a surreal cast that also included Peggy Lipton of Twin Peaks fame, Little Richard, and a young Neil Patrick Harris — roughly at the age of 6. She continued acting in film and television throughout the late '80s and '90s. Birch's high points in this era include Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994) alongside Harrison Ford, a headlining role in Monkey Trouble (1994) with Harvey Keitel, and Hocus Pocus (1993), which become a cult classic after an initial critical and box office disappointment. According to the It Happened In Hollywood podcast, Birch first read the script for American Beauty — her most popularly successful project to this day — at roughly the age of 16.  

But nobody can be a child or teen star forever. When the entertainment-consuming public winds up associating you with the roles you played during your youth, they might not know what to make of you when you grow up. Just look at Macaulay Culkin. He never had a horrifying personal scandal (rumors of a debilitating drug problem have been greatly exaggerated), and he didn't make a lot of bad movies, but people still call him washed up all the time anyway. For most viewers, he'll just always be best remembered as Kevin McCallister from Home Alone. Birch's circumstances are pretty similar. 

The incident with her dad...?

If you're the sort of person who keeps their ears open for celebrity gossip, you may already know about Jack Birch and the questionable influence he's had on his daughter's career. According to ABC, Thora Birch was fired from a 2010 off-Broadway production of Dracula due to her father and then-manager's alleged attitude and behavior. 

Director Paul Alexander told ABC that he asked another actor to rub Birch's back for a scene; her father then "[tried] to convey Thora's discomfort" in a manner Alexander interpreted as a threat. Deciding Birch wasn't worth her overbearing, overprotective dad menacing the rest of his cast, Alexander somewhat reluctantly gave both Birches the boot from his production.

Did Birch's father's behavior hurt her chances of success? At the risk of editorial speculation — even if we accept Alexander's side of the story 100%, doesn't the incident sound, ah, well...way too trifling to seriously harm a major actor's career? Christian Bale completely lost his mind on the set of Terminator: Salvation (2009)he apologized, everyone forgave him, The Mae Shi wrote a song about it, and the world went about its business. 

It could be that the ramifications of Jack Birch's behavior on the Dracula set have been wildly blasted out of proportion. Asked about the hullabaloo surrounding the incident in 2016, Birch told The Guardian, "A lot of it was bull!@#$." Maybe she's onto something. 

This isn't the only production Birch parted from. She was originally cast as Tammy Metzler in Election (1999), a critically acclaimed black comedy starring Reese Witherspoon as a ruthlessly ambitious high school electioneer, but she quit (or was fired, according to some sources) after just a few days on set. It's a shame that Birch had creative differences with the director, Alexander Payne; the satire would've been a perfect fit for her sardonic on-screen persona. 

American Beauty's Kevin Spacey problem

In a vacuum, director Sam Mendes and writer Alan Ball's 1999 Oscar winner American Beauty still holds up as a case study in upper-middle-class suburban ennui. Birch plays Jane Burnham, the moody teenage offspring of the film's protagonist, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey). 

But the story about a financially comfortable, middle-aged white guy struggling with the limitations of a society that frowns upon his intention to sleep with his daughter's friend, high school cheerleader Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), fails even the most basic of wokeness tests for 2021. Although the film ultimately argues that adults shouldn't have sex with teenagers, many viewers nowadays find the basic premise problematic. The plot was of questionable taste even back in the ancient year of 1999. Subsequent revelations about Spacey's predatory behavior have also added to the film's already murky ethics.  

Birch reminded us that Spacey was not the only person who worked on America Beauty. "You can't help but feel like, 'Oh great, now we have this stain on the film,'" Birch told the It Happened in Hollywood podcast in 2019. "But at the end of the day...who's to blame? It's Kevin. It doesn't have anything to do with American Beauty...I think, or hope, at least, some of that will dissipate from how people regard the film itself."

It's gotta be a bummer when someone else's scandal taints your greatest career accomplishment.

Wes Bentley also kind of dropped off

We can't chalk up the entirety of Thora Birch's retreat from A-lister status to Kevin Spacey; more than 15 years separate the release of American Beauty and Spacey's public downfall. But perhaps American Beauty was something of a double-edged sword for the younger actors involved. 

Wes Bentley — who plays Ricky Fitts, Jane's poetic, troubled love interest — didn't appear in another major hit until The Hunger Games in 2012, more than a decade later. Mena Suvari went on to a relatively prolific and absolutely respectable TV and movie career, but just like Birch, her zenith of Hollywood relevance remains American Beauty by a mile. 

The fact that American Beauty happened to be a decisive career peak for all three of its teen stars probably says more about the nature of Hollywood than Birch, Bentley, or Suvari. Perhaps starring in an Oscar-mongering, era-defining hit before any of them were a quarter-century old gave those of us in the public unrealistic expectations for where they'd end up down the line. 

Many '90s actors had a rough go of it

Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, and Mena Suvari didn't grow up to achieve the type of permanent Hollywood royalty status their fans might've expected at one point, but they're not alone. 

We can say the same thing about Seann William Scott, Jason Biggs, Shannon Elizabeth, Heather Graham, Chris Klein, Alicia Silverstone, Chris O'Donnell, Scott Wolf, Angela Bettis, Neve Campbell, Jeremy London, Robin Tunney, Rachel True, Jason London, Joey Lauren Adams, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Tara Reid, James Duval, Rachael Leigh Cook, Freddie Prinze Jr., Patrick Fugit, Fairuza Balk, Shannyn Sossamon, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Melissa Joan Hart, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, the Olsen twins, Stacey Dash, and probably a few other one-time showbiz A-listers we're forgetting. That's quite the roster of names. 

Did all of these people make terrible career choices? Or could it be the case that translating a handful of noteworthy teenage or childhood roles into sustainable movie star status is much more complicated than we realize? Enduring star power is a rare and elusive achievement, particularly when there's an endless supply of fresh talent waiting in the wings. 

A few adolescent thespians from the '90s did hang on to their star status. There's Leonardo DiCaprio, who's arguably a once-in-a-generation talent, and Will Smith. And there's Claire Danes, who remains pretty famous, but largely as a television star these days (and who knows how her career will go post-Homeland, which wrapped in 2020).

So it seems like the only way the aforementioned batch of '90s teens could've avoided being subjects of a "Where are they now?"-type internet article or two is being Leonardo DiCaprio. And that's impossible. There can only be one Leo. 

Ghost World is underappreciated

American Beauty aged poorly, but indie flick Ghost World (2001), which marks Birch's last performance before hitting a few career bumps, still holds up today. Directed by Terry Zwigoff and based on a comic by Daniel Clowes, the plot follows the post-senior year adventures of Enid (Birch) and her pal Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson). Cynical and bored, they harass lonely middle-aged jazz enthusiast Seymour (Steve Buscemi) for sport, but an unlikely friendship blossoms. 

Ghost World resonates as quirky and understated in ways that feel indicative of the era, but doesn't feel like it's trying as hard as American Beauty, nor does it feel as impressed with itself as Zach Braff's Garden State (2004), these being the alpha and omega of turn-of-the-millennium suburban angst cinema. As was the case with American Beauty, the film won several awards, with Birch's older male costar racking up more accolades than she did. 

Johansson doesn't have as much screen time as her presence on the promotional material indicates, but MCU enthusiasts with an interest in what the Black Widow was up to before Iron Man 2 might want to give this a gander.

Bad luck

Sometimes ideas that look like major hits on paper don't pan out once they hit the screen. Finding worthwhile projects is a gamble, and sound judgment can only go so far. 

Silver City (2004), starring Chris Cooper, had the makings of a Wag the Dog-style political satire, but perhaps underestimated the national mood in the polarized post-9/11 era. This lighthearted, low-stakes comedy about an ersatz George W. Bush was answering a question no one was asking during that period. 

Slingshot (2005) scans like a straight-to-video, Americanized Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but cast member Balthazar Getty was less than 10 years removed from David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997), and maybe a Guy Ritchie knockoff looked like the sort of thing that could've rehabbed star David Arquette's image at the time. All we're saying is we understand why Slingshot might've seemed like a reasonable idea when Birch signed her contract sometime in the vicinity of 2004.    

Limited releases and modest marketing budgets also poured cold water on expectations for a few of Birch's newer projects, like The Etruscan Smile (2018), a well-received but rarely seen comedy-drama with Brian Cox; Above Suspicion (2019), a thriller about the first FBI agent to be convicted of murder; and horror-thriller Kindred Spirits (2019), by way of May (2002) writer-director Lucky McKee. The latter's got a remarkably good Rotten Tomatoes score for what might as well be a direct-to-Hulu movie. 

Bad ideas

Maybe we shouldn't act like Thora Birch bears no responsibility for her faded spotlight. She's certainly at the mercy of forces well beyond her control — aren't we all? — but that doesn't mean she's never signed up to be in a movie that, even in its formative phase, must've looked extremely crappy.  

Take The Competition (2018). If Birch was trying to disrupt the popular notion that she's a 1990s/early 2000s nostalgia act, maybe signing up for a tired How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days rehash costarring fellow '90s star Chris Klein isn't the most strategic maneuver. 

We can say the same thing about family comedy-drama Petunia (2012), the trailer for which shows Birch's character announcing, "I still feel like I'm 16. I have no better idea what to do now than I did then." Maybe she should find a cute guy who thinks litter is really fascinating and go hang out with him, because Petunia is leagues behind American Beauty, which Birch made when she was 17. 

Also, what could Birch have possibly done to deserve Winter of Frozen Dreams (2009)? A lot of things had to go severely wrong for that movie to exist.  

Still famous enough for The Walking Dead

Since it started in 2010, The Walking Dead (TWD) has helped launch its fair share of careers: those of Jon Bernthal, Danai Gurira, and Steven Yeun to name a few. There's no reason why it can't also propel a former big-name actor back to her rightful glory. In terms of ratings and cultural heft, TWD itself has dropped a few new notches since its peak phase, but maybe Thora Birch and television's longest-running don't-call-it-a-zombie-series can help each other out. 

In TWD season 10, Birch plays a prominent member of The Whisperers — a deeply twisted post-apocalyptic gang that dresses themselves up in detached walker skin to fit in with the actual walkers. The Whisperers also seem to really enjoy decapitating people; they cut heads off and jam them on spikes as if they're getting paid for it. Whisperers are sick as heck. 

No spoilers, but it goes without saying Birch's TWD gig lives on borrowed time. The show is on the cusp of its final season, which compounds its already notoriously casual attitude about killing characters off. But no matter how long it lasts, at least we can all say we've seen Thora Birch on television with what looks like aging beef jerky all over her head.  

And famous enough for an A24 cameo

More people will watch an episode of TWD than see a film in the spirit of The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019). That's got as much to do with how certain pieces of media are positioned and marketed as it does the inclinations and tastes of the masses. To put it more bluntly, even though fewer people will see The Last Black Man In San Francisco, a larger fraction of those individuals will walk away satisfied by the experience. 

Thora Birch has a cameo at the end of this achingly beautiful, A24-produced exploration of gentrification and friendship. Her surprise appearance is just one reason among many to see this movie, which features stellar performances from Jonathan Majors (Lovecraft Country), Mike Epps, and Danny Glover. B

Birch told movie news site Extra Butter of her fondness for San Francisco and the originality of the story (not always an attractive quality for bottom-line obsessed movie studio financiers), which drew her to the project. "I would imagine for [director] Joe [Talbot] and for [cowriter/star] Jimmie [Fails], it might've started out as more challenging to get a story like this off the ground," she said. "But...if you have a unique vision and a true, from-the-heart story to tell, which is these guys' life experiences, then people pay attention to that and are willing to give that a shot." 

If there's a lesson the rest of us can learn from Thora Birch, it's that there's more to a creative life than magazine covers and cashing fat paychecks from Disney or Warner Bros. movies.