What Ever Happened To American Beauty’s Thora Birch?

The star of Sam Mendes’ breakthrough hit has been off the radar in recent years.

American Beauty star Thora Birch
Thora Birch The American Beauty star Image Getty Images

At one point, she appeared destined for superstardom, starring alongside Scarlett Johansson in the off-beat comic book movie adaptation Ghost World, but for whatever reason Thora Birch has never quite scaled the heights of her old co-star.

And yet it had all started so promisingly. A prolific child actor, Birch landed roles in Parenthood, Patriot Games and Hocus Pocus as part of a decade of prolific film success that would put most stars to shame.

Yet the best was yet to come in 1999 when Birch landed her defining role as Kevin Spacey’s daughter Jane Burnham in the critically-lauded Sam Mendes drama American Beauty.

16 at the time the film was made, Birch was technically classed as a minor at the time, meaning Mendes required her parents’ approval for a topless scene that featured in the seminal film.

Not that Birch’s parents objected to what was a tasteful and very brief sequence – Jack and Carol Birch were not only former adult film actors, with notable credits including Deep Throat, but were also Thora’s business managers and knew the potential effect the role could have on her career.

It proved to be the case, with the years that followed seeing Birch cast in a variety of major roles that saw her seemingly make the step from child star to bona fide actor with ease.

Roles in the big screen adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons and teen slasher/thriller Hole, alongside a young Keira Knightley, set the tone for the diverse range Birch offered, but it was her Golden Globe-nominated turn in Ghost World, alongside Johansson, that suggested big things were on the horizon.

Or at least that was how things appeared in the public eye. The reality was that, behind the scenes, things were far from rosy for Birch.

Even as a youngster, Birch had courted trouble, in one instance famously getting fired from Alexander Payne’s 1999 classic Election, over a disagreement with the director.

“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?” she told The Guardian, years later.

American Beauty
American Beauty The cast of the critically acclaimed movie Image Getty Images

Birch also failed to build on the plaudits she earned for Ghost World, with the next two years spent largely away from the limelight, save for appearances in several low-budget films and made-for-TV movies.

Over the years that followed, Birch continued to choose projects against type and despite the damaging effect they were having on her career.

Reflecting on her career choices during an interview in 2012, Birch said: “[I wanted to] maintain a strong identity and pursue things that were a little more thoughtful, and I guess nobody really wanted women to do that at that time”

Things hit a new low in 2009, while Birch was filming Winter of Frozen Dreams, a film that saw the actress play the part of a biochemistry student and prostitute convicted of murder.

The New York Post ran a story claiming Thora’s father, Jack, had insisted on being present during the filming of the movie’s sex scene and had made people uncomfortable on set.

“It was so wrong,” an insider said at the time. “The director is saying ‘Harder! Faster!’ and the father is giving Winters the thumbs-up.”

A year later, Birch was fired from an off-broadway revival of Dracula after Jack threatened a fellow actor on set, after he spotted him rubbing his daughter’s back during rehearsal.

Birch didn’t cut ties with her father though, with the pair instead strengthening their bond further in 2012, with the release of Petunia, a film produced by the father-daughter duo and one that flopped badly.

Thora Birch
Thora Birch The American Beauty star Image Getty Images

Five years on and after a significant amount of time away from the limelight, Birch looks to finally be on the comeback trail.

Cast in a recurring role in the hit series Colony, alongside Josh Holloway and Sarah Wayne Callies from Lost and The Walking Dead, the show has just been renewed for a third season.

Birch also has two films out this year in Above Suspicion and The Etruscan Smile with a further two potentially arriving in 2017.

While Jack Birch is still seemingly in the picture, the 35-year-old star still has more than enough time to make good on that early promise. Scarlett had better watch out.

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Loaded staff writer Jack Beresford has produced content for Lad Bible, Axonn Media and a variety of online sports and news media outlets.